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More School Choice Means Less Choice for Some

By Azania Briggs
NABJ Monitor

Almost seven years have passed since the Recovery School District took over 112 of New Orleans’ under-performing schools, yet at a recent forum held at Dillard University, some parents and educators voiced concern that education quality and student preparedness have been slow to improve.

The parents, students and community leaders gathered at the forum moderated by WDSU news anchor Norman Robinson on June 19 discussed the impact of RSD, the alternate school district administered by the Louisiana Department of Education to transform low-performing schools. Some said the change has not improved the schools and has given parents less choice in post-Katrina New Orleans.

“What do we have now seven years later?” asked Lance Hill, Ph.D., executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research. “Seventy-nine percent of the RSD-run charters were rated as a ‘D’ or an ‘F’ school. Of the remaining 6,000 poor children that are left in the Recovery School District being run by the ‘world-class superintendents and teachers and principals,’ those 6,000 students are 100 percent in ‘D’ or ‘F’ schools,” Hill said.

Initially introduced in 2003, only five schools were managed by the Recovery School District by May 2005. After Hurricane Katrina, the program took over a majority of New Orleans schools and turned them into public charter schools. As of now, nearly 30,000 students are enrolled in 66 RSD schools, according to the Louisiana Department of Education, which include 16 traditional public schools and 50 public charter schools.

As a result of RSD, low performance and some school closings, schools that have underperformed will be turned into charters, while others will be torn down for necessary renovations, according to state officials. The lack of improvements has resulted in even more closings, charter school openings and others demolished. In addition, nearly 250 teachers are at risk of being fired.

Some Louisiana residents said that not all teachers are part of the problem. “You don’t need new ways with new teachers. You don’t need old ways with old teachers,” said Josef Pons, a senior Theater Arts major at Dillard University. “What you need are old teachers with new ways. Old teachers who were grounded in from day one and new technology that they can work with.”

These changes will be the tip of the iceberg if Gov. Bobby Jindal follows through with plans to privatize education in Louisiana with a voucher program. According to state officials, the voucher program will target about 5,000 students from low and middle income households who attend low performing schools. The voucher program will result in about $8,800 per student being diverted from the already diminished public education funds. The program will allow parents to pick from 120 private schools, including an undetermined number of parochial schools.

“A lot of this was positioned as it being the governor’s agenda, which is all fine and good, but the reality is there were a number of parents who wanted the opportunity to be able to send their child to a school other than the school their child is typically zoned for,” said Eric B. Lewis, the state director for the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options. “We feel it’s important that parents, and particularly African-American parents of low income have the opportunity to access other options than what’s currently available today.”

Some parents and residents of New Orleans are concerned that the changes, which will impact their children, are taking place without their input. “Charter schools were also meant to give parents a choice but charter schools in New Orleans have been implemented in such a way that they’re used as a hammer to force us into a particular ideology, and so now we no longer have a choice,” said Karran Harper Royal, a public school parent who is nonetheless an advocate for school reform.

Others said the reforms are on track for eventual improvements, arguing that increasing the number of charter schools is best for students.
“We’re going to end up being the first city in the country to basically pass the state average in the next several years,” predicted Kira Orange Jones who serves on the District 2 Seat for Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. “In the next five years what we’re going to see is a lot less schools who characterize themselves as ‘Ds’ or ‘Cs’ because they have continued to move in this place where they have grandfathered from being ‘F’ schools.”

Many parents are concerned that increased use of charter schools result in “cherry picking” the best students and leaving behind those with health or behavioral issues or learning disabilities.

Even with the changes, some said schools still have not shown the touted improvements. “Every year we had 80 percent failure rates, year after year after year. We went from 15 percent in 2006 on the eighth grade LEAP, 15 percent in 2007 and 21 percent in 2008; back down to 17 percent passing in 2009. Forty-three percent were proficient in the charters,” Hill said. “This provided what I think was convincing evidence that the reason the charters were advancing is that they were cherry picking off the best students as they came into the public system.”

Still public school privatization and an increase in charter schools will continue to expand with the implementation of the voucher program set for the 2012-2013 academic year. Some parents said their children are being used to make changes that will not ultimately benefit them.
“I know that what we’re doing in New Orleans isn’t innovation. It isn’t real reform and it’s not what it’s going to take to get our children to where they need to be,” said Royal.

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