America / Education / Politics / U.S. Domestic Policy

Charter Schools: Revolutionary or Racist?

The educational landscape of New Orleans, my hometown, has changed rapidly since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city almost nine years ago. The Recovery School District (RSD), by far the city’s largest school district, closed its last five traditional public schools in May to become the nation’s first all-charter school system. During the 2013-14 school year, 92% of New Orleans public school students attended a charter school, the largest rate in the nation. This percentage is set to increase with RSD’s latest announcement.

Leaders across racial and political lines agree that New Orleans’s market-based education reform has greatly improved the achievement of its students. Teachers unions, on the other hand, resort to illogical and racially charged attacks to dismiss this accomplishment.

How the system works

After Katrina, the state took over 102 of New Orleans’s 117 public schools and created the Recovery School District in an attempt to turn around failing schools. RSD converted each of these into a charter school funded by taxpayers and overseen by the elected state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are run by private corporations, which range from local groups to large nationwide organizations like the widely praised Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).

In order to enroll their children in a charter school, parents rank their top eight choices on OneApp, an online application similar to the College Application. Some schools have open enrollment, while others are selective.

RSD is not New Orleans’s only school district, however. The Orleans Parish School Board still operates five traditional public schools and 14 charter schools.

RSD and other charter school systems use free-market principles to improve education outcomes. Students are no longer tethered to neighborhood schools, but can instead choose schools from across the city. In order to stay afloat, schools must compete with one another to attract students. The need to compete drives schools to improve students’ achievement and adopt innovative ways of educating students. In a similar fashion, businesses must compete with each other to attract customers, incentivizing them to become more efficient and develop new technologies.

Recovering city, recovering education

The expansion of charter schools in New Orleans has produced a greater educational environment for students as shown by increased test scores and graduation rates.

According to state data, the percentage of students from RSD schools scoring at grade level or above on standardized tests increased by 29% between 2008 and 2013. The performance of New Orleans students is improving faster than that of Louisiana students as a whole. Louisiana students scoring at grade level increased by only 9% between 2008 and 2013.

Charter Graph

Researchers at Stanford University examined post-Katrina standardized test scores and concluded that New Orleans charter school students are learning more than their traditional public school counterparts. Fifty percent of charter schools performed significantly better on the state reading test, and 62% performed significantly better on the math test, compared to traditional public schools. The study concludes that the average New Orleans charter school student receives the equivalent of four months of additional reading education and five months of additional math education.

More New Orleans high school students are graduating due to charter schools’ expansion as well. The graduation rate was 77.8% in 2013, compared to 54.4% in 2005.

Parents have noticed the improvement in their children’s schools as well: 66% of New Orleans parents feel that schools are better after Katrina. Public schools in New Orleans are not perfect, however. Too many New Orleans students fail standardized tests and do not graduate high school. Achievement indicators, however, show that much improvement has been made.

Opponents resort to the race card

Charter schools used to attract most of their praise from conservatives, but prominent Democrats are now taking notice of New Orleans’s example. Figures like President ObamaOprah Winfrey, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have all praised New Orleans’s expansion of charter schools.

Teachers unions, however, have lambasted school reform. The nation’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have filed a civil rights lawsuit with the Department of Justice alleging that the city’s school reform is racist. The lawsuit alleges that the city’s move toward charter schools disproportionately affects black students.  The unions also allege that school closures resulting from reform upset stability in communities and deprive children of the ability to attend schools that are generations old. Therefore, the plaintiffs argue, education reform “severely harmed African-American communities” and “sentences our communities to a slow and painful death.” Most absurdly of all, the lawsuit argues that “[m]any African-American New Orleanians believe that this is RSD’s and BESE’s motivating reason for the closures—to force them to leave the city.” In other words, charter schools are a racist plot by white officials to rid the city of blacks.

The first claim is true: schools taken over by the state have higher black populations than those left under local control. The unions’ apocalyptic rhetoric, however, is unfounded. In fact, school reform benefits black students and communities. As already explained, reform has improved education outcomes in RSD schools, where 86% of students are black. According to state data, school reform has also reduced the achievement gap between black and white students in New Orleans.  In 2007, the rate of white students scoring at grade level on standardized tests was 56% higher than that of black students. In 2011, the gap was 42%. The evidence shows that education reform disproportionately benefits blacks.

The lawsuit also argues that charter schools are governed by unelected leaders and are thus not held accountable. This is false: the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), an elected body in state government, oversees charter schools. The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), which governed all of the city’s public schools before Katrina, was a shameful disgrace to the students it served. According to the Washington Post, the OPSB was bankrupt and could not explain how it misplaced $71 million in federal grant funding. Also, by governing the worst performing school district in the nation, the OPSB failed in its mission to educate the city’s students.

Opponents’ cries of racism on the part of school administrators are not backed by evidence. Such claims reveal that teachers unions have lost the battle of ideas over education reform. With a bipartisan and multiracial coalition supporting charter schools, teachers unions have no legitimate arguments left.

The alternative proposed by teachers unions is to leave black students in failing schools instead of allowing them to thrive in more successful charter schools. If any proposal is racially unjust, it is not reforming education at all.