“Profiting from Those Least Able to Resist”: On the “Promise” of Charter Schools

Day five of CIED 694V: Progressive Education Policy welcomed a guest lecturer from Louisiana State University to talk about charter schools, especially the charterization of the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell is associate professor of Literacy and Urban Education at LSU and coordinates the elementary grades teacher education programs. Beyond living through Hurricane Katrina in the area and bearing witness to what happened in New Orleans–the city is now 100% populated by charter schools–she recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Equity & Excellence in Education on “The Promises of Charter Schools.” The issue was built around a single question: “How is the promise of charter schooling, as a vehicle for social justice in public education, playing out? (Dowell & Bickmore)”

I’ve questioned the motives of charter schools for a host of reasons, including the concept that they are leading to increased segregation of our public school system and the notion that students should not, in any situation, be turned into a profit scheme. To me, charters are a smoke and mirrors attack on public education marauding around as “choices” for parents who might be disenfranchised with their local public school. When I invited Dr. Dowell to speak to our Progressive Education Policy course, I thought I might finally get some nuance to my stance.

Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell provided a guest lecture at the University of Arkansas
Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell provided a guest lecture at the University of Arkansas

In preparation for class and at the invitation of our guest, we read the introduction to the themed issue as well as a piece by Nancy Picard, a Louisiana attorney who penned Louisiana’s Great Education Giveaway, a lengthy blog post that captures the genesis and repercussions of the New Orleans takeover. Ms. Picard doesn’t hedge language in her opening paragraph:

Instead, [charters] create a separate and wholly unequal educational system masquerading as choice, which serves to destabilize and discredit public schools in the name of improvement and to make state funds accessible to a wide range of individuals and corporations with little or no oversight.

As Picard point by point explained what happened in New Orleans, the way the laws were changed without anyone in the city following the hurricane, the way African American teachers were fired when their school system was dissolved, the way the Recovery School District (RSD) has now spread across the state, I grew ill. Those interested in privatizing education didn’t miss a beat in attempting to take advantage of the crisis Hurricane Katrina left in its’ wake. If everyone in education were to read Ms. Picard’s post, the world might, in fact, be a better place.

She closed with damning words for her state:

Tossing around public school funds like so many Mardi Gras beads is irresponsible, short-sighted, and an evasion of our responsibility to educate all citizens.

That last phrase really stuck with me. Isn’t this what it’s all about, the evasion of responsibility to all citizens? Do we–Americans–really want equality in our schools or our country and if we do, why do our actions not support such when our actions are to sidestep and shirk our responsibility of educating all citizens in favor of engineering and then spending a windfall of cash on unproven charter schools?

Dowell was able to put names and faces to what exactly has happened in the area. As someone who has worked in teacher preparation and as a school superintendent and teacher, some of her research has taken her to these New Orleans charter schools. She related that some schools are “Mom and Pop” charters that operate loosely (she offered the example of a New Orleans East charter which ran out of money to bus kids in March of last year before closing) and others are good schools that reflect the part of the city from which they originated (she mentioned Homer Plessy and Morris Jeff as two examples of great schools). It sounded like the quality of the schools was–at least to some extent–dependent on the socioeconomics of the students from which each schools drew.

What’s happened in New Orleans represents one of the elements to education deform–destabilization, an element that Professor Dowell spoke of during her visit to class. The RSD took out all of the teachers with experience teaching in the area–not to mention deep roots in the community–in favor of quick fixes like Teach for America and other temp workers. Charter schools sweep into an area like New Orleans and provide temporary homes for students (and the all important $$$ that accompany them) and many charters–if the national trend holds–will go out of business, leaving students and parents in the lurch, leaving a path of destabilization one might liken to the destructive path of a hurricane.

Class also spent some time discussing issues related to the special themed issue of Equity & Excellence in Education that Dowell and her colleague Dana Bickmore, co-edited. The pair asked important and enduring questions, ones I think the country writ large needs to consider before opening one more charter school.

“But we wonder, how have charter schools empowered students, teachers, and families/parents, particularly in schools that are comprised of children of color and children from low socioeconomic backgrounds?”

Champions of charter schools are quick to point out that some students are achieving in those schools whereas their achievement was less certain in their former public schools. This achievement issue is a tricky one to navigate because how well students do is important to everyone. But because charters are presently conceived as being in competition with public schools and adhere to a different set of rules than public schools, the achievement issue is murky at best. Of course the biggest factor in this conversation is, again, the amount of income present in the home (you might be detecting a pattern here). As Kevin Welner eloquently points out in “The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment,” when education as competition is a game to be played and there’s hardly a limit to ways of gaming the system.

Part and parcel to that game, of course, is the high stakes standardized testing regime, about which Dowell and Bickmore offered this astute analysis:

We contend that one score as an evaluation tool denies social justice. Other outcomes might be appropriate for children who will live their entire lives in the twenty-first century. These outputs might include democratic citizenship and social responsibility, as well as critical self-reflection around unequal socially constructed relationships and enhanced capabilities of students, teachers, and local communities to address marginalization through race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability.

Let me be clear, Professor Dowell doesn’t see charters schools through a single lens. She wants the best possible learning situations for all students and that is something laudable and about which most of us can agree. When charters become, as I’ll argue they have in New Orleans, a source of profit for outside interests, a problem exists that needs to be addressed.

While touted as promising change for the betterment of children and public education in the U.S., charter schools as an educational reform strategy appear to be more aligned with profiting from those least able to resist. We posit that the shift in what constituted a charter school, coupled with the increase in standardized testing and the commodification and privatization of education, limit the promise of charter schools as social justice-inspired entities.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan might have uttered his most offensive words ever in 2010, calling Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

If one’s goals are to risk the education of young people (despite overwhelming reasons to question charters), to change laws to make it easier to privatize a public education system, and to destabilize a region in the wake of a crisis, Arne and many others are “profiting from those least able to resist” (Dowell & Bickmore, 2015).

Who will stand up for them?