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Principals of public schools shouldn’t decide who gets in them

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Degree of  Interest

It’s “March Madness,” and we still don’t compete for black children.

A recent report out of the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans found that principals, compelled to compete in the highly decentralized environment of New Orleans, reacted to market pressures by curating their student bodies. In hopes of academic improvement, these principals recruited per pupil expenditures attached to students and/or “creamed” for children who maximized chances to meet numerical performance goals.

“Creaming” generally describes the practice of enrolling higher achieving children or denying the lowest performing students or students with cited behavioral problems. Loading the deck can happen within any district or population. Academic growth can be had from things other than responding to the academic needs of students.

Related: Young, inexperienced principal tries to turn New Orleans charter school around

But let’s get real. The report isn’t a ‘told you so’ moment for antireform advocates. New Orleans may be the one admitting it, but the practice goes on nationwide.

Creaming (or pushing out) black children in New Orleans didn’t start with the advent of the charter school movement. Likewise, reformers shouldn’t use the report to push yet another panacea – a centralized enrollment program is a presumed fix. Alas, political combatants strive to be right rather than compete for black, brown and poor children.

While I appreciate the report’s analysis on how competition plays itself out in a choice district, there isn’t enough discussion on devalued black lives. Market pressures should primarily come from black families, but what pressure can come from consumers who valued by how much it will cost the school to educate them?

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The report’s author, Huriya Jabbar, assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin, examines principal behavior in the caldron of competition. The findings reveal some not so noble realities of education.

I always cringe when I see and hear leaders define students as commodities. But when Jabbar asked “if their school competed with other schools for students,” leaders replied with “Yes, Lord!” and “Every kid is money.”

A child should never be objectified. Let’s hope New Orleans leaders see children’s worth beyond the $13,000 we spend on each child.

Money follows the child in Louisiana as in many states. But, the drive to get butts in seats can’t come at the expense of quality. Well, it shouldn’t. But the most disturbing findings came from principals who admitted to tailoring their student bodies to achieve success.

Related: Why New Orleans school officials closed a struggling charter school while keeping a failing one open

One principal stated, “We’ve done invite-only open houses, where we target specific types of parents, and we say, ‘Hey, we really love you as a parent and we want you to bring another parent who’s like you.’ ….So I got a couple of parents that way.”

I guess it is possible to turn around a school in a year by turning it over.

In reaction, The Times-Picayune editorial board says, the “[p]rincipals’ confessions to manipulating enrollment prove importance of OneApp.” OneApp is the computerized enrollment system that takes the selection of students out the hands of people.

While I do believe in the these systems, particularly in the New Orleans context, I also know that if a leader or teacher doesn’t want a child or his or her family, then it’s unlikely that child will persist. There’s nothing worse than a school that doesn’t want you.

An aside – We often talk about enrollment, but who leaves (gets pushed out) and why is also important. Irresponsible suspensions and expulsions can often be sniffed out. Hostile and nefarious environments that cause early departures often go undetected because they’re cloaked in things like school culture.

Related: A taste of victory, finally, for a struggling Newark school

There are just too many negative ways to reach an honorable goal.

But traditionalists can’t look to this report as Exhibit A. Again, creaming, push-out and treating students as dollars occurred in the prior system without a report, OneApp system (I would actually like to see more enrollment management systems in traditional districts) or an alternative. Magnet and test-in schools of the past and present just made creaming legal.

The report essentially shows the New Orleans charter district as being more responsive to families than the previous centralized system. But the nature of the responses is in question. Competition isn’t always healthy. Many individual schools and charter management organizations within the “portfolio district” are gaming the system and cheating families.

Gaming is a consequence of not understanding we’re all in this together. Educating “my kind of people” in New Orleans is as traditional as parochial school. Passing the buck, which some think of as a student, certainly won’t get us to that deeper understanding. It didn’t in the past, and it doesn’t now.

Leaders cheat themselves when they don’t demonstrate they can educate all children.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of  The GardenPath: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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