Louisiana is at the forefront of the charter school movement — and some educators don’t like it one bit.
Charters are public schools, not private ones, and critics of the idea often call them “privatizing” schools. Funny that, because most of the money for charters comes from the same source, taxpayers and particularly state aid, that goes to public schools.
The ideal of charters is certainly a reasonable one: If a school can run itself, without interference or excessive regulation, it can experiment in the classroom and provide students with what they need.
The ideal often inspires advocates of charters to oversell: The problems of public education are not about money but only about leadership of the school and capability of teachers. Leadership is needed in schools of all kinds, and the idea that “money isn’t the problem” is not realistic in a world that is driven by cash.
Charters come in all shapes and sizes around the state, but they are concentrated in New Orleans, where the Recovery School District after Hurricane Katrina ended up operating 71 of the city’s 90 public schools. About 60 percent of public school students in New Orleans are in charter schools.
Researchers from the RAND Corp. studied the New Orleans experiment and noted that “Critics worry that charter schools siphon critical funds and the most motivated families away from traditional public schools.
This concern has been voiced with particular vigor in New Orleans, where the traditional schools run by the RSD are sometimes viewed as schools of last resort in comparison to RSD charter schools and to (Orleans Parish School Board) charter and traditional schools.”
If the “traditional” schools run by the RSD serve a more racially segregated and poorer demographic, that is bound to make them greater challenges. But teacher unions and other critics of charters are quick to criticize RSD schools for poor performance, blithely ignoring the argument — made by traditionalists all the time — that poverty drives many measures of education. And the RSD has reported rising test scores, a far cry from the catastrophically poor scores in Orleans Parish schools before Katrina.
Because of some high-profile failures of some charters, either academically or because of mismanagement, the state has revoked some charters and taken management back to the RSD. Advocates of charters note that failing public schools often continue to do poorly for decades, with little in the way of severe consequences. At least in charters, they say, somebody’s minding the store.
However, the “feel” of charter schools is different. Often, they are started by charismatic leaders who can attract young teachers and public-spirited volunteers for boards or other work in the schools.
But there is a downside to independence: If an unhappy parent wishes to complain, he likely will be faced with a board that is enthralled with its dynamic principal; the recourse of calling one’s school board member, as in traditional systems, does not really exist in charters.
The Council for a Better Louisiana has a sort of primer on charter schools, and questioned candidates for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education about their views on charters. That is available through CABL’s website http://www.cabl.org.
While we have been supportive of charters, we also see the need for oversight — and after a few high-profile failures the state Department of Education belatedly has announced intentions to more closely oversee them. Even with proper oversight, do charters really perform as laboratories for innovation?
Charter schools are a mechanism, not a cure-all. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds need targeted and intensive help to get on a ladder of success.
Advocates of charter schools are right to say there is more than one way to build a good ladder, and education policy should not get in the way of that process when it is working.