At a school board meeting in December, New Orleans Parish Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. referred the audience to a recently published newspaper article describing his plan to turn the last five traditional public schools in New Orleans into charter schools.
He told us that his plan was motivated by the schools’ principals, who wanted their schools to be Type 3 charters. That type of charter school is governed by the local school board, and parents, teachers, and community members must have input on important decisions. But many community members were hearing about this plan for the first time at the hearing. Fliers about the charter plan were sent home in children’s backpacks only one day before the superintendent’s article appeared in print. The teachers had been informed only three days prior to that.
The last five traditional schools in New Orleans have not yet been converted into charters because their students score well on tests. These five traditional public schools also have open enrollment—meaning anyone can attend—and they have the highest special-needs populations. Nevertheless, one of them has the highest test scores of all open enrollment schools of all the school districts in the region, and all of them are in the top twenty in New Orleans.
The deadline for the first draft of the charter plan is January 27, and the final draft is due February 27. Since the proposal to charter these five schools emerged, people have been busy with the holidays, and now, in New Orleans, we have the Mardi Gras season. Most politicians and city business officials are in a scramble to make things happen. Mardi Gras season is a very hard time to get things done. But our superintendent somehow came to the conclusion that this was a good time to push parents, teachers, and the community to learn about charter schools and to complete a charter school plan in six weeks (with four of those weeks taken up by vacation and holidays).
What most education advocates in the city will tell you is that due to the constantly changing landscape, most parents and community members do not understand the different types of charters. For instance, many people don’t know that state charter schools are directly accountable only to the state board of elementary and secondary education. Children from all over the state, including other parishes, can attend state charter schools, but those schools do not have to provide free transportation.
We also have Recovery School District (RSD) charter schools, Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) charter schools, independent charter schools, and charter schools that are part of networks such as the Algiers Charter Schools Association, the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools, Firstline Schools, etc. Some schools have open enrollment, other schools have selective admissions processes. Some schools have fee structures that can range from $900 to $1,700 per child in fees each year.
Most of these charters have the autonomy to run their schools as they please. Almost none are accountable to parents and community. Now the communities that house the last five traditional public schools in New Orleans have only days to decide the future of their schools—and the future of the children’s education.
I spoke with Lowen Thomas, a parent who had gone through seven months of notes from board meetings and found no mention of her children’s school being turned into a charter. She said that she didn’t understand why her school needs to become a charter. Benjamin Franklin Elementary School is the highest scoring open enrollment public school in New Orleans. The majority of the teaching staff are veteran teachers who have degrees in education.
“But I feel like we have no choice,” Thomas told me. If the school community doesn’t put in a charter application, she explained, according to the note sent home, other charter providers who run schools in the RSD can apply to take over the school.
“This is ridiculous—to give control of a higher performing school to people who run lower performing schools to improve it? Who does that?” Thomas asked.
“It is as if the schools are being put into a trap,” she continued. “Apply for your own charter in six weeks, including holidays, probably get turned down because your application is incomplete and doesn’t meet standards, and watch your school get turned over to people who run schools that are not able to perform as well as yours.”
I also spoke with Nolan Marshall, who has been on the Orleans Parish School Board since 2012 representing District 7. Marshall said he thought that the six weeks including holidays was enough time. He admitted there were a lot of flaws in the current charter system, but is still in favor of turning all public schools—including the successful ones—into charters.
I spoke with another parent who asked that we not use her name. She said that the new choice system is no choice at all, that she had spent two years on the waiting list to get her child in a traditional public school: “I made a choice to put my child in a traditional public school with good scores, veteran educators, and people with degrees in education who are rooted in our community. Now you’re telling me I have to leave my city to get the choice of what I believe quality education looks like? That’s not choice at all.”
“Why do they want to take everything from us; haven’t they taken enough?” she continued. “When do we get a say?”
After Hurricane Katrina, the citizens of New Orleans have been asking the same questions over and over again. “Things are being done to us, not with us.” We’ve been saying that for ten years and it still is not being heard.
Ashana Bigard is a lifelong resident of New Orleans, mother of three, social justice organizer, and advocate for children and families in Louisiana. She is Progressive Education Southcentral Regional Fellow.