Column

School choice shouldn’t take away our neighborhood schools

New Orleans to turn remaining five public schools into charters

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

Kindergarten students participate in class at Sylvanie Williams College Prep elementary school, on January 16, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

At Integrity Schools of New Orleans, you have options. Our five school networks support teaching terminals at over 80 locations and automated teaching machines (ATMs) throughout the Crescent City. Choose between 16 different kinds of study accounts to serve your personal and professional goals. And we have alternative schooling services. So if you can’t get in one of one of our high performing networks, another may accommodate you to fit your family’s budget.

This isn’t a real advertisement. But if the mantra of school choice — Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos’ signature rallying cry — drowns out all critics, ads for great schools won’t be much different than ads for banks.

In New Orleans, the school board is poised to make this the first all-charter district in the country with its plans to convert the remaining five schools that it manages into charter schools. The five schools will form a network that will be managed by an organization created last week.

Though 95 percent of students already attend charter schools (families can apply to enroll their children in any public school in the city regardless of zip code), the move signifies how much choice has overridden innovation, a once-popular motto of charter schools.

Choice is actually an affront to what many education reformers were trying to innovate — compelling diverse families who live in the same neighborhood to send their children to a quality school.

DeVos has said that all families should have the opportunity to send their children to a great school, and not be stuck with a public school that might be failing. But if school choice is about creating quality options, then why is New Orleans taking away entirely the option of a neighborhood school?

The reality is that people are tied to their neighborhoods and ethnic communities. But when you don’t value the culture and community that makes us human beings, it’s easy to create systems that separate the people from their communities.

Education philosopher Paulo Freire illustrated how school reform dehumanizes oppressed people in his banking concept of education. In this model the teacher “deposits” information, which is often culturally irrelevant, into empty “receptacles,” or students. Kenneth Strike, also an education philosopher, furthers this point. He describes how the current reform movement often views students and learning so instrumentally that the very folk who need reform can be removed in order to increase the bottom line of academic achievement, similar to how a bank or a corporation uses its human capital.

For the billionaire DeVos as with others, education reform is like putting money in the bank.

Related: Dear students, Betsy DeVos may not be prepared for office, but you must prepare for her

Something is missing from my fictional ad — a vision of neighborhoods and durable relationships contributing to safe, productive schools. Absent is a vision of a great neighborhood where you’re likely to see your teacher in the grocery store. Students aren’t likely to see their principals as equals in church or the library. You don’t get a sense that graduates come back home to teach or run for school board. The student-teacher relationship is purely transactional. Learning is personalized — but in the same way banks offer to put your selfie on an ATM card. Creating schools to end racism, poverty, and homophobia become trivial pursuits.

Only a corporate belief system would think it’s okay to hand off our kids’ education to another company created so recently that if it were a recently laid off teacher seeking unemployment benefits, it would still be in its waiting period before claims could be disbursed. (On the other hand, Donald Trump seems to believe you can undo a healthcare plan in the same manner.)

In collaboration with the school district office, the principals of the five public schools are putting together a nonprofit called ExCEED Network Schools Charter Management Organization, which is expected manage the network. The New Orleans online publication The Lens reports that business leader Coleman Ridley Jr. filed for ExCEED’s nonprofit status. Ridley apparently resigned from being board chair of the charter management organization Crescent City Schools to take on the new group. As of January 30, his name was the only one listed on the Secretary of State’s business database.

The scattershot unloading of New Orleans’ schools is telling about how we view black people in urban districts. Removing attendance zones made sense when Hurricane Katrina submerged 80 percent of the city. Maintaining that policy when we have new facilities and improved academic outcomes is waving a white flag instead of fighting for neighborhood schools.

Related: Put youth who break the law where they belong — in a great school

We are much more interested in the educational equivalent of pop-up ATMs than in investing in vibrant black neighborhoods that produce and oversee their own great schools.

Educational ATMs won’t prune the racism, xenophobia and bigotry that are growing like weeds, as seen in the spike in hate crimes after the presidential election. Schools should be used to bring neighbors together.

To what end is school choice? I believed the end goal was to accelerate the development of great schools (be it traditional or charter) in every neighborhood. The escape hatch of choice is, at best, a means to that end. At worst, it’s a banking commercial.

New Orleans has never committed to creating great neighborhood schools. We don’t know their benefits because, since the 1970s, when white enrollment in New Orleans public schools fell by over half and then half again in the following decade, most people have grown up in segregated, private, magnet and now choice/charter schools. Real innovation would help us see that we are in this together to improve our schools, rather than seeing ourselves as trapped in our communities.

New Orleans knows too well how to learn in segregated, independent schools. But of all the systems New Orleans should try to make successful, neighborhood schools is the one we’ve never had.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

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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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