reports from a local parent monitoring public education in New Orleans

President Obama Has It Dangerously Wrong on Education

When choosing his Education Secretary, President Obama could have had Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading national expert on education policy.

Instead, he chose his basketball buddy from Chicago, Mr. Arne Duncan, who has never been an educator. In fact, Mr. Duncan is widely considered unqualified for his position. Duncan’s crony from Chicago, Mr. Paul Vallas, is the unqualified non-educator Superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD), which since Katrina operates most Orleans Parish public schools as charter schools.

Now Chicago and New Orleans are being used as national models for education “reform.” Hey America! President Obama! Have you looked closely at what’s happened to public education and its stakeholders in these cities as well as Ohio, D.C., and Philadelphia since charters were introduced?

The “education reform” playing out in these places is not about helping schools became better schools by helping teachers become better teachers and helping students become better students. Nor is it attending to long-deferred maintenance on facilities. It is about replacing us. This movement is the result of long-term efforts towards privatization and divestment of our local public institutions driven by racist and conservative agendas of historic proportions. Doubt this? Look at who’s profiting from it. Look at who’s hurting.

Why is President Obama now pushing charter schools as the answer to systemic failures? Perhaps he is he unaware of the extensive research nationwide showing that charter school outcomes are inconsistent, disputable, and questionable, while unequivocally proving that they often perpetuate inequality and corruption. They hurt instead of help students, families, educators, and communities in many places where they were once hailed as solutions to these very issues. Charter schools were intended to be incubators of innovation, not to replace traditional schools altogether. The rationale of expanded charter school systems is deeply flawed and dangerous to our nation’s well-being.

The drivers of this reform do not know how to, or are not interested in, producing healthy whole people and successful community outcomes. They arbitrarily tie finances, long-term stability, and local self-determination to controversial high stakes test scores and call that “accountability,” all the while directing tens of millions of dollars at a time towards perpetuating their personal and political networks – at the ultimate expense of students and neighborhoods.

In New Orleans and Chicago, the people affected have no voice in the decisions being made. We find out about our school closures through the newspapers. The faculties and staff continue to be fired; the students continue to be displaced. Confusion and obfuscation rule the day. How do we keep a non-system accountable? There are outrageous contracts we know about, but can’t get anyone to answer for. In New Orleans almost four years into this “experiment in market-driven public education,” young people are still regularly dying in the streets. Schools keep failing. Public school families are struggling every day, or have left. If the experiment becomes national policy, our entire country will be in chaos.

Changing a school system’s governance is not sufficient to affect how a student and teacher interact in a way that causes the student to become successful. Experts and parents agree: what at-risk children and communities need is the same as their better–situated counterparts: small classrooms, experienced teachers, and stability.

Also, experts are now saying that our American education system as a whole has moved (almost completely) away from imparting knowledge and skills gained through hands-on experience, and now relies too heavily on textbook, classroom, and computer instruction. Further, in the past 30 years or so, our national education laws and priorities have moved in directions that are particularly unfriendly to young boys’ natural brain development. This is causing social problems, heartbreak, and even violence for much of our society across every demographic. Instead of moving our country’s practices in a healthier direction, we are punishing individual boys and their families for failure from coast to coast.

Be aware that in New Orleans and Chicago, the charter reform experiment is in governance only – the vast majority of charter schools are using off-the-shelf, conventional factory-model curriculums to meet NCLB targets. This means that nearly all students who are different in any way do not fit in. Although a child might someday make an amazing craftsman, in today’s schools we are not giving them the basic skills that they need to succeed in life. The whole system must transform to work with children’s natural timeline of development in order to prepare them to become productive members of society who are not necessarily all going to college.

Mr. Vallas brought to RSD his troupe of traveling Chicago consultants who are paid for by the Walton and Gates Foundations, and he appointed them heads of each historic neighborhood school’s “advisory committee.” They dictate everything that happens. Community members of these committees are only notified of changes at the school after decisions are made. Our system is so confused and political that it is difficult if not impossible to maintain current and accurate oversight of one or a few schools, much less the multiple governances, quiet contracts, and the big picture.

Our country is already struggling to sustain itself. Why would we disempower instead of stabilize our school systems?

The charter boards are society- or self-selected and self-perpetuating. There are no public elections and local stakeholders voice concerns that basic public meeting laws are routinely ignored.

Imagine what happens if the most wealthy, political, and/or popular personalities in each part of your town get to commandeer your neighborhood public schools and decide who gets in.

Now add promises of big money, autonomy, and competition based on test scores.

Each charter group becomes a clique, or a mafia. The challenging kids are pushed out.

The challenging teachers, or any staff who might have higher personnel costs due to tenure, are pushed out too.

Today in New Orleans the continued chaos in the schools is locally cited as injuring our recovery and prolonging the disaster, even as the President’s basketball buddy lies to the nation about how great it is here.

All you have to do is look at the test scores they don’t want you to see- to understand that 70 % of our children are still failing basic skills tests in many schools.

Simply put: when public schools are forced to compete for resources, high-scoring students, and the cheapest possible employees, the results to society are not good, especially in this era of increasing scarcity.

After four years of the New Orleans charter school system experiment, and from charters across the country, we can now identify the following costs to society from charter school expansions:

1. continued failing and unstable schools
2. loss of a stable middle class of education professionals
3. “cheaper” short term employees have no retirement, tenure, or job security, with regular rights violations
4. total loss of democratic governance of schools
5. loss of meaningful participation – public meetings are for show and the outcomes are pre-determined
6. large-scale loss of accountability and oversight
7. loss of systemic cooperation for the best interests of children and society
8. funds intended for education instead going to middle men
9. no less troubled /struggling children and families
10. no less blood in the streets from youth violence

Is this what we want for America? President Obama, we need an investment in healing. We need the resources and self-determination to come to us, not to those who purport to serve us but actually serve themselves. Charter schools are not the answer. Systems of public schools in competition are not the answer. Blaming and rejecting struggling children, veteran teachers, and locally elected school boards won’t build up our nation. We need an accountable local governance model, based on big-picture cooperation, with healthy expectations and positive, respectful support from the Federal government. We must foster stability and nurturing to change the very destructive, even soul-crushing, dynamics of today’s American education system if we are to accomplish the positive change promised by your vision of hope for our lives.

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