The Poor Pay the Highest Price for Charter School Experiments — Part 1 — New Orleans

It’s now clear that not everyone in American society has suffered equally or at all from charter school experiments.

While claiming to help the poor and people of color, in fact, corporate charters and their management companies have done the poor the most harm where those charters were given the most freedom and protection from the state.

In those instances, charter school corporations have aggressively pursued their own financial interests on the backs of taxpayers, while carefully avoiding accountability. And they have done this at the expense of poor children of color and their neighborhoods.

In this series of three posts —The Poor Pay the Highest Price for Charter School Experiments, I will focus on three instances of corporation schools experimenting with their organizational models at the expense of poor children with little regard for the children’s future.

Let’s start with the longest running example:

New Orleans

neworleans-schools2xAfter years of phasing out all of its public schools and unlawfully firing around 7,000 predominantly African-American teachers and staff, this year all the City of New Orleans schools will be charter schools controlled by state appointees. Residents of New Orleans will not have any democratically elected control of what was originally supposed to be a temporary “recovery” effort after Hurricane Katrina.

The assumption by the state was that the New Orleans public school district had become so corrupt that there was a need to just start all over again.

The big question is why was it decided that the citizens of New Orleans would have no say in how the district would recover and gain credibility? Answer: The majority are people of color and a large part of that population is poor.

Not Self-discipline — Compliance

The strongest emphasis of charters in New Orleans is not on research, questions, curiosity, or thinking. Instead it is focused on rehearsing facts that will help them on the state tests which will bolster the reputations of the charter schools. Much of the instruction in those schools is direct instruction focused on rehearsing students on how to answer test questions.

In order to engage in such drudgery, schools have to emphasize control of student behavior in the most carefully defined ways. Here is a description from an exposure of New Orleans charters published this year:

There were, for example, specific expectations about where students should put their hands, which direction they should turn their heads, how they should stand, and how they should sit — practices referred to at one school as SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod, and Track the Speaker) and at the other as SPARK (Sit up straight, Pay attention, Ask and answer questions, React to show I’m following along, Keep tracking the speaker). Students were kept silent, or what teachers called “level zero,” through most of the day.

Silence seemed to be especially important in the hallways. At the sound of each bell at the middle school, students were expected to line up at “level zero” with their faces forward and hands behind their backs and, when given permission, step into the hallway and onto strips of black duct tape. There they waited for the command of an administrator: “Duke, you can move to your next class! Tulane, you can walk when you show me that you are ready!”

Students then marched until they reached the STOP sign on the floor, where their teacher checked them for hallway position before giving them permission to continue around the corner. Throughout this process, students moved counter-clockwise around the perimeter of the hallway (even if they were going to a classroom one door to the left).

Having taught for 11 years in a predominantly white, upper class suburb, I am certain that no parents from that economic and cultural class of people would tolerate their children being treated that way unless it was a military academy that they had chosen.

Yet, those same people would and do think that it’s good to keep black and brown children from showing any kind of physical and mental independence.

Not College Prep

The effort is to force compliance without thinking among people of color.  And, not so coincidentally, that’s just what service and office workers are expected to do in large corporations. PR talk from those organizations emphasizes that they are prepping students for the rigorous demands of college. Instead, what students get is rigid external control that punishes thinking and self-expression.

That is not how to prepare students for college.

Clearly, what they actually are doing in charters in poor neighborhoods is prepping students to be compliant service and office workers.

No Respect for the Culture or Situation of Their Students

This is to be expected by private organizations that are led, in the case of New Orleans, mostly by whites in their 30s who are graduates of suburban high schools, graduates of Ivy League colleges, and then, Teach For America.

Not only are they hostile to the culture that they are teaching within, but they are hostile to educators who have experience with that culture. When the edu-corporations took over in New Orleans, immediately, thousands of teachers and staff with long experience in that city and district were fired.

You know, we mustn’t embarrass the “brightest and best” when they don’t actually know what they are doing.

Grand Experiment at Whose Expense?

This has been a grand experiment in how corporations can perfect the process of taking over an entire city of public schools with corporation schools. The process has been taken completely out of the control of the people who they are supposed to serve even though taxes that pay for it are collected from those very same people.

It is experimentation on the poor and people of color because they know that those particular communities have little power in this society. Right wing thinking and politics over the last 35 years has introduced a sense in public discourse that “those people” have done something to deserve having their futures taken out of their own hands and put in the control of someone else.

Is New Orleans A One-of-a-Kind Circumstance?

But is the New Orleans situation highly unique and not revealing of anything else except New Orleans? No. In the next two parts of this series I will show how the same fundamental disrespect for children of color, and especially if they are also poor, has turned up in two other large U.S. cities.