Wednesday, August 29

Two years after Katrina, New Orleans and its charter schools still in trouble

Today is the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastating landfall along the Gulf Coast. In the last two years, not too much has improved in New Orleans, but the schools have changed dramatically, with important lessons that we in New York can learn.

First, I think we'd be better off if we kept some perspective about how bad things can be when we get worked up over comparatively minor affairs.

Second, and more rooted in policy, New Orleans has embraced charter schools as a panacea for its educational woes, including those that were entrenched well before the storm. As an article in this week's Nation magazine points out, the state and federal government has privileged charter schools over regular public schools in decisions about funding, enrollment, and space. Among the many consequences are increased violence, diminished teacher quality, and reduced attention to students with special needs. In addition, according to the article,

If a child doesn't have parents or guardians willing or able to navigate the sometimes labyrinthine path into a charter school, that child will join the other, less fortunate students in an [regular public] school. "Many in New Orleans now refer to the [regular public] schools as 'the dumping ground,'" writes Leigh Dingerson of the Center for Community Change. "Such a set of catch-all schools is required in a free market system, because there must be a place for the kids who don't gain entry elsewhere."
As New York continues to go wild over charter schools, we must guard against this consequence. Already some regular public schools are feeling squeezed by sharing space and resources with charter schools; the Post reported this week that the Choir Academy of Harlem isn't happy about the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy Charter School expanding in its building. The Choir Academy's response seems psychic more than realistic -- the school has more than enough classrooms to accommodate its own students, even after giving over part of the building to the charter school -- but as we know, psychic damage can be crippling.

The Nation article reminds readers that although the charter movement is "represented on the national stage by conservatives," it's "dominated in the trenched by progressives," and that charters may introduce real possibilities for positive change. But New Orleans' experience shows us that unrestrained zeal for charters hurts kids and schools. We are fortunate in New York not to have had a disaster clear the field here, and we have no reason not to proceed cautiously with charter schools. I hope that's a message Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein take from this somber anniversary.

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