Did you know that New Orleans was once the most integrated city in the U.S.? Now it is one of the most racially and economically segregated cities and a school reform target. After all, how can you not help struggling students whose homes were ravaged by floods? The Broad and Walton foundations are pouring in money. They also are funding elections to make the reforms stick. Is this the future of American education?
Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) is elected. Back in 2011, Louisiana businessman Lane Grigsby organized the Alliance for Better Classrooms (ABC) to support New Orleans’ charter school expansion. California based realtor Eli Broad and the Walmart founders, Alice and Jim Walton donated the money. The BESE is up for election again. Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana blogger, dug up campaign finance records showing that their foundations are contributing a combined total of $650,000 for Grigsby’s PAC to support candidates for the BESE.
People live in New Orleans. How did they let outsiders take over? Well, those with money had already left. New Orleans has the highest private school enrollment (25%) in the country. The State supports vouchers for private schools even though their courts ruled they violated constitutional requirements for separation between church and state. Of course, not all private schools want voucher students. Thus, the private sector is two tiered and is of questionable quality for students from low income families. Schools serving high income families tend not to accept vouchers.
In 2009, the State took over New Orleans public schools in low income areas and formed the Recovery School District (RSD). Many schools were closed. All but five of the remainder have become charters (59). By the Numbers reports that 85% of the public school children are black and 83% are from low income families.
Since 1970, however, housing has become increasingly segregated by race and income even though the poverty rate did not change. Katrina made things worse. A study of the impact of Katrina reported that low-income residential areas were hardest hit by the flood. Only about half of those evacuated from these areas returned while 71% of non-blacks returned. The city now has 46,409 K-12 students. This is a drop of about one third prior to Katrina.
The consequences of concentrated poverty are difficult and expensive to fix. Louisiana guarantees a minimum level of per student funding, but the discrepancies are large between high and low income districts. The initial (RSD) budget of $493 million was cut to $214 million in 2014. Charter management companies pick up the cost. The results are uncertain. RSD schools are still the lowest achieving in the state.
The community wants its schools back, but the local school board is not in control. It owns the buildings but does not manage them or their facility funds. No one seems certain that the buildings would return to the district if district control is returned. The law is not clear. What was at first assumed to be a temporary fix may become permanent. The State is getting out of the business of running schools. The school board has no power. Schools are in the hands of several national charter management companies. They make the choices for New Orleans’ children, not the parents.