New Orleans' Last Traditional Public Schools May Become Charters

Apr 11, 2017

New Orleans might soon become the first city without a single traditional public school. The superintendent and school board decide later this month whether to charter the last five schools, which means they’d be publicly funded but privately run. That has at least one family concerned.

Every day when her children come home from school, Ingrid Thomas reaches into their backpacks and pulls out folders thick with paper: homework assignments, permission slips, things for parents to look over. A few months ago, she was caught off guard by a letter from the principal.

It said the principal would like Ben Franklin Elementary to become a charter school, run by a brand new charter management organization called the ExCEED network.

Thomas stands in her sun-filled living room, with the letter smoothed out on a coffee table. There’s a flurry of activity around her. Her daughter Margot twirls down the stairs. Her son Liam shows off a loose tooth.

Thomas loves her kids' school. The tight-knit feel. The fact that most teachers have years of experience. She was stunned and heartbroken by the letter. She says it sounded like the decision had already been made.

“And I’m like well wait a second,” Thomas says. “There are questions that we need to ask and they need to be answered. And parents need to be involved.”

Parents used to vote on whether or not they wanted to charter. But now networks like ExCEED can just send fill-in-the-blank style letters home in children’s backpacks.

Ben Franklin Elementary is one of the last five traditional public schools in New Orleans. There’s also Bethune Elementary, Mahalia Jackson Elementary, McMain Secondary and McDonogh 35 High School. If they become charters, the city will be the first in the nation without a single traditional public school.

That wasn’t the original vision of the charter school movement, says Jeffrey Henig. He’s a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and studies school reform. He says the idea was for charter schools to compete with – not completely replace – traditional schools.

“The notion was that charters would be laboratories of experimentation, would try out ideas that traditional public schools were too bureaucratic to initiate on their own,” Henig says.

Ideally, charter schools would improve the entire school system. Traditional schools could learn from and use their best ideas. Plus, they’d compete for students and push traditional schools to step up their game.

“They’d be a prod,” Henig says. “A catalyst.”

There are mixed reviews on how well this has worked. But since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become a testing ground for a different idea: an all-charter system.

And with more than 90 percent of public school students already in charter schools, Henig says, “I think it’s got some symbolic resonance, you know, to go from practically every school is a charter to every school is a charter. That’s not like a substantively big step.”

It feels like a big step to Ingrid Thomas, whose kids go to one of those last five schools. She’s heard the benefits of chartering. Principals get more control over things like curriculum and budget. And they can potentially get more money.

But Thomas has concerns. She’s seen charter schools hire lots of young, inexperienced teachers. And if ExCEED someday loses its contract, a new group could come in with a totally different vision.

School choice sounds like it should be about giving parents more choices. But in the end, Thomas feels like she hasn’t had a say.

“I’m not necessarily against charter schools,” Thomas says. “But what is bothersome to me is the lack of transparency throughout this process and the lack of willingness to engage the public.”

Thomas isn’t the only one with concerns. A team of independent evaluators recently said ExCEED’s application fell short and shouldn’t get approved, though they did approve another charter network to take over one high school.

The superintendent and school board will make the final call later this month.

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