The key to success in any industry is innovation. That is at the heart of the reform movement that has overtaken public education over the last few years and shuttered public schools that were labeled failing or underresourced. Many of the reformers likely had the children’s best interests in mind, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who donated $100 million in 2010 to help turn around schools in Newark, N.J. Unfortunately, the reforms have not gone as planned.
In Newark, students and their parents in the city’s South Ward boycotted the first day of school to protest One Newark, the school-choice enrollment plan that moved some children far from their neighborhood schools. Weeks later, hundreds of high school students walked out of class in protest.
More than a month after school started, some parents say that hundreds of children still have not been assigned a school, and frustrations over transportation issues, uncertainty about where to send their children and dissatisfaction over closed neighborhood schools have led to many more not showing up for class.
“For me, as a parent, I know that my children deserve better,” says Sharon Smith, a mother with three children in Newark schools. “And not because they’re just mine, but because every child deserves the best opportunity that they can receive with education. But that’s not happening here. The parents here are stuck with whatever decision the district makes.”
Smith and other critics have chided One Newark on behalf of families without cars, who, she says, sometimes have to put children on two buses to get them to school. The plan doesn’t provide wholesale transportation, and many charter schools don’t offer it.
Zuckerberg’s $100 million matched donation has vanished, mostly into pockets of contractors and consultants and given to teachers unions as back pay. As Vivian Cox Fraser, president of the Urban League of Essex County, famously remarked in a New Yorker story about the debacle, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”
Schools Being Set Up to Fail
But it’s not just Newark. Smith, who founded the organization Parents Unified for Local School Education, or PULSENJ, joined with parent organizations in Chicago and New Orleans to file three complaints with the U.S. Department of Education under Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, citing segregation and discrimination. All three school districts are being investigated by the Education Department’s regional offices, say lawyers for the organizations.
“To put it in real candid terms, it’s hustling,” says Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, the organization overseeing the filing of the civil rights complaints, “on the backs of black and brown children.”
Brown, a lifelong Chicago resident who has been working with inner-city schools and neighborhood organizations since 1991, says that school choice has really just been an excuse for politicians to sack neighborhood schools and funnel government money to charter operators, which operate schools that on average take just 64 percent of the money that their district counterparts take.
Brown points to a number of examples in which, he says, Chicago Public Schools intentionally sabotaged successful schools in an effort to prop up charters, using tactics like offering laptops and iPads to lure high-performing students out of traditional public schools and into charters.
“These people are almost like drug dealers and the children are the narcotics, and they flip ’em until they’re able to finally make enough profit,” he says. “That’s how drug dealers work. It’s no different. It’s really no different.”
A report from the Chicago Teachers Union (pdf) released last year detailed how Simon Guggenheim Elementary School in West Englewood was set up for failure, while Jacob Beidler Elementary School, in East Garfield Park, was set up for success. The two schools have similar percentages of low-income students, and both are in communities facing high rates of violence, but Guggenheim, the report says, was denied resources in order to destabilize the environment.
Brown alleges that Chicago Public Schools has done this on several other occasions, citing examples like Beethoven Elementary on the city’s South Side. Once a high-performing school in a poor community, it was inundated over a number of years with students from closed schools in different neighborhoods around the city that ultimately dragged the school’s test scores down to a level where it is now failing.
“[The school district has] been closing schools in this neighborhood since 1998 as they’ve been trying to gentrify the area,” he says. “Those closings accelerated around 2004. We realized that it wasn’t really about school improvement; it was about freeing up that public area for the incoming gentry.”
Charter School Success Stories
While Brown has staunchly advocated for saving the city’s neighborhood schools rather than closing them, the dysfunction within the schools has led parents like Veronica Adkins to abandon traditional public schools in favor of charters.
“It was a high risk having [my daughter] in a Chicago public school,” says Adkins, a 27-year-old mother of two who initially enrolled her 6-year-old daughter in the school district before pulling her out and placing her in a Learn Charter school. “You can tell that she is surrounded by a different type of child. You know, the children, they are more scholarly, they’re more focused, there are less behavior issues, and that’s because of the structure of the school. I have to acknowledge that.”
Over the last 10 years, local school districts around the country have seen double-digit decreases in enrollment, while charter schools have seen their numbers expand, often by triple digits, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
Among the 20 districts that serve the most students of color in the country, every one had at least a 35 percent increase in student enrollment at charter schools during the period from 2005-2006 to 2012-2013, and charter school enrollment more than doubled in 13 of the 20. There was at least a tripling of charter school enrollment in Chicago (up 219 percent), Los Angeles (up 243 percent), Indianapolis (up 287 percent), Baltimore (up 366 percent), Memphis (up 377 percent), San Antonio (up 483 percent) and Pinellas County, Fla. (up 601 percent). New York City had a 428 percent increase during the period, and according to charter school advocates, there are still more than 50,000 students in the city on charter school waiting lists.
One can accuse charter schools of “juking the stats” or turning schools into prison preparatory academies; or point out their high teacher-turnover rates, say they serve fewer students with special needs, teach fewer students from dysfunctional families or use suspensions to push out underperforming students—and many have—but charters are also getting results.
New Orleans, where charter schools are responsible for educating almost all of the city’s children in public schools, has led the way and had some notable success. In five years the city has posted the largest, fastest improvement in test scores ever in an urban public school system. Graduation rates have improved, student retention has increased, and ACT scores have gone up annually and at a higher rate than in the rest of Louisiana. That success, as well as the results seen by select charter schools in other cities, has led many city and state governments to chase the charter school model.
Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, says that New Orleans and the state of Louisiana have had success with charters because of what she calls an “accountability system.”
“It was the whole idea of high-stakes testing, setting the bar around what our expectations are gonna be,” says Shirley. “The idea being that … you give schools the freedom, the power to make decisions as close to kids as possible—whether that’s curriculum decisions, budget decisions, hiring decisions, whatever those decisions look like. I think, prior to the transformation, New Orleans was mired in a history of less-than-great news around public ed, and at worst had the FBI camped out in school board office buildings. So I firmly believe that it’s been through chartering here that we’ve broken that cycle and are seeing better results.”
Students Left Behind
But the success of some charter schools is of little solace to parents of students stuck in underperforming charters, of which there are still quite a few (about 20 percent of New Orleans’ charters are still rated D or F on the state's accountability "report cards" and 23 percent got no grade), or those who are denied access to charters and are stuck in schools with now further-reduced resources because when other students leave the district, the public money goes with them.
That reality has been at the heart of calls for a halt to chartering from New Orleans parents and community activists. In a scathing letter (pdf) to Louisiana’s State Superintendent of Education John White, two groups that filed the federal complaint detailed a laundry list of complaints about the all-charter model and White himself.
In the letter, they assert that black and brown children in the city often have to travel long distances to catch buses, which has led to the deaths of two students; that there are no longer any neighborhood schools in majority-black neighborhoods, noting that while black students make up more than 80 percent of the student population in New Orleans, they are “around 30 to 47 percent of the population at most of the high-performing schools”; and that of the students affected by the most recent round of school closures, approximately 1,000 are black and only five are white.
“Your real allegiance is to the pro-charter, pro-privatization agenda. It has become clear that you will lie, bribe, and turn a blind eye to discrimination to benefit this agenda,” the letter writers say, before calling for White’s immediate resignation and a moratorium on school closures.
But the most pervasive complaint from parents and community members in New Orleans, Chicago, Newark and other cities that are embracing charter schools with open arms and open checkbooks is not about those issues cited in the letter. The complaint repeated over and over again is that they were never consulted and never asked for input, and their calls to school districts, charter operators and everyone within the leadership that now oversees every aspect of education in each city are consistently ignored.
“We have a right to say, ‘No, we don’t accept this plan,” says Newark’s Sharon Smith. “These are our children, these are our schools, these are our neighborhoods, and we have a right to say what happens to our children. We don’t believe that you need to smash a system in order to make it work again.”
(Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said that 79 percent of New Orleans charter schools received a D or F ranking, citing a report from NPR. Only 20 percent of the charters in New Orleans get Ds of Fs. More than half get an A, B or a C. The rest are not graded.)
Dion Rabouin is a freelance writer currently based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.