Teachers’ Unions and Charter Schools
The Case of New Orleans
We begin with the case of New Orleans, for it provides a framework to understand the role of teacher unions, charter schools and teachers themselves and how they operate and feel about the charter school movement; it also points directly to how public school systems in their entirety are being targeted for sweeping conservative change in the form of a contractualized charter school experiment that is the most radical of its kind in the nation. Currently 54 percent of all schools in New Orleans are charter schools (Merrow 2009).
Yet the idea to ‘charterize’ the schools in New Orleans directly after the hurricane was not a new notion. It was, in fact, part of a well orchestrated effort born out of conservative ideological think tanks and specifically the work of Paul T. Hill at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, at Washington University. Hill had been writing for years for the need to radically transform education through conservative market-based reforms and new public-private partnerships in education in order to cure what allegedly ails large urban school districts. In a publication for the Brookings Institution Press, in 2004 Hill and his colleague, James Harvey, wrote a small publication entitled: Making School Reform Work. In the book, the two authors write that the:
current system of education governance creates barriers that can make (educational) reform even harder (Hill and Harvey 2004 )
The answer, they write, is the need for:
new institutions that can be created by foundations and civic groups to remedy deficiencies in local school governance, formulate bold reforms, and guarantee implementation. These institutions include incubators for starting new schools, independent data analysis centers, public-private partnerships for recruitment and training of school leaders, and new ways of funding and managing school facilities (ibid).
Hill and Harvey put forth these ideas in the year preceding Hurricane Katrina. In fact, Hill, Harvey and scholar Christine Campbell had laid out this plan, entitled Diverse Providers Strategy, in a 2000 book entitled, It Takes a City. The book was an audacious attempt at laying out a new architecture for school ‘reform’, especially inner city, urban school reform. It was to be based on an ideology of market fundamentalism with the role of the government as an overseer of a network of privately run publicly funded schools, or in some cases schools operated by non-profit EMOs..
What the book does is basically lays out two camps of what the authors refer to as ‘reformers’ — those inside the educational community and those outside of it. The first group of reformers, according to Hill and his co-authors, want to concentrate on improving standards, better teacher development, creating new school designs, and they tend to focus on decentralization and site-based management issues when it comes to school governance; in other words they wish to work within the current system of public education in hopes of improving it. It should also be noted that the first group favors collective bargaining and teacher unions in a social contract with schools and school management. The second group of educational reformers, according to Hill and his associates, include those bold and audacious voices for a wholesale sweeping change through the market reform of education, such as encouraging more charter schools, school contracting and private school vouchers; it is firmly with this latter group that Hill and his colleagues are wedded.
What Hill, Harvey and Campbell envisioned in their restructuring plans for inner city urban schools was the construction of school reform strategies that they considered were more powerful than those anywhere in the United States, precisely because they would combine the quintessentially American ‘market’ freedoms the authors believed were part and parcel of the American psyche, with the neo-liberal political and economic policies necessary for the wholesale reform of public schools in the direction measureable outcomes based on standardized tests. The strategies to be employed, according to Hill and his co-authors, would:
introduce three features missing or barely evident in today’s public education: choice, competition, and entrepreneurship” (Hill 2004).
The plan was a bold one and based on disturbing notions of individual freedoms and human nature; at least this was the concern voiced by many progressive educators. The notion of ‘measureable outcomes’ based on competition among community members in an unregulated, unfettered economic market is and was part and parcel of the ideology that underlie Hill’s calls for reform. The underlying assumption was that people are naturally calculating individuals, self interested and self motivated to pursue their own interests with little regard for the public good. As little information processors and calculating rational selves who seek freedom not in the ‘commons’ but from the commons, the ideology was distinctly neo-liberal; it rests on a set of assumptions that posited that there really was no greater good, no public interest, only freedom of individual choice. This would also echo some of the same historical sentiments voiced by Lippmann in the early 20th century. Basically this narrow view of human beings posited that not only is there is no real ‘public interest’, but it went further, arguing that that if people were given individual choices in the ‘free market’ where they would compete for goods and services, they not only would get what they wanted as ‘free’ individuals, but the system as a whole would operate rationally. With this austere outlook of the human being operating solely as rational profit-maximizers, what then was needed were public policies that would work to free the competitive market from all government oversight, regulation and control. Only an unfettered market of ‘public choice’ would allow the rational pursuit of freedom for the individual by providing an economy based on competitive maximum advantage. ‘Public choice’ was a necessary ingredient for this view of personal freedom but it would be a ‘public choice’ in a privately run market system, not a ‘private’ choice in a publicly run system.
Hill’s plan, which he presented to the American Youth Forum in 2001 and which is the subject of his writings and book, proposes three strategies that build on the principles of what he calls performance incentives, capacity investments and school ‘choice’ freedom:
The CEO-Strong Schools Strategy. Under this plan, the superintendent would operate as the head of a decentralized district. As the chief executive officer, the superintendent would ensure that teachers and principals have everything they need to implement the reform effort. The superintendent would have the authority to issue rules or require schools to hire staff or use the services of the school system’s central office if it would improve performance. This plan would require an annual performance agreement between the superintendent and the school. The CEO-superintendent could replace principals and teachers who fail to meet performance expectations. This scenario also gives the superintendent the power to move money and free up administrative staff and faculty.
The Diverse Providers Strategy.
A local school board would aggressively use its state-delegated power to provide for publicly-managed schools and public schools run by independent providers. Each would have similar performance agreements and freedom of action. Schools would receive funding on a per pupil basis and have little restriction placed on spending discretion—except for contractual commitments. Small amounts would be held by the school board to support oversight of individual schools. Funds would be controlled by the schools. Parents could choose schools, and schools would admit students through a public lottery with no student exclusion. The school board would be obliged to shift contracts from low-performing school providers, encouraging better service.
The Community-Partnership Strategy.
The Community Partnership can be seen as a further development of the Diverse Providers approach. This strategy would also include multiple public and private partners and would be a genuine community-wide system in that all the community’s resources, not simply its schools, would be available in an organized way to meet children’s educational needs and their general well-being. It would license many entities to provide K-12 instruction, including conventional public school systems, contractors of the kind described under the Diverse Providers Strategy, unconventional educational and cultural options, including museums, libraries, arts agencies, church supported systems willing to operate under First Amendment constraints and dispersed “cyber schools.” Community Partnerships would go beyond Diverse Providers in three ways. A community education board would (1) encourage non-school educational resources; (2) preserve a portfolio of education alternatives for the disadvantaged, and (3) broker health and social service resources to meet children’s needs (Hill 2001).
For Hill and his colleagues to implement the ideology of neo-liberalism and reconfigure the educational system based on ‘targets’ and ‘incentives’ in the market place much more had to happen; significant public policy changes had to be carried out and this, Hill noted, was the problem. The social engineering that Hill envisioned was necessary to improve the educational system called for the elimination of many public educational institutions and move decision-making outside of traditional public school districts:
…we need to eliminate some institutions, change the missions and capabilities of others, and create new institutions. Some of the most important new institutional capabilities should exist outside what we now consider the central [district] office (Hill and Harvey 2007).
For Hill, this would mean that the management and day to day operations of these schools would no longer be driven by public regulations, collective bargaining agreements and bureaucratic oversight, but by ‘public choice’ whereby the individual would pursue their self-seeking interest as consumers in the free market, for only the free market could offer any hope for democracy. In this new system of freedom through public choice performance targets could be locked into standards and incentives and efficiency targets would be the motivating features that would drive the system; there would be no need for what Hill and others see as burdensome governmental regulations and collective bargaining because the ‘free’ market and the decisions made in that market by parents, would self regulate the system. The whole notion of a publicly run educational system would be abandoned in favor of one based on privately run schools financed through public taxes or by elite philosophic interests and financiers. The role of the government would go from overseeing schools to overseeing and managing ‘providers’, most of them for-profit ventures, as we have seen, to assure that they were meeting essential standards, targets, performance objectives that would all be measured through standardized testing. This and the tax collecting functions the government would need to engage in, in order to subsidize the new charterized, private system.
The authors also go on to argue for subsidies for developers and construction concerns by advocating the development of public school real estate trusts to help new charter schools get off the ground by aiding and abetting them with start-up costs for rent, purchases or leases of school sites. These would be public funds we are talking about – subsidies- and they would of course be expected to eventually find their way into private sector pockets under the charter provider rubric presented by Hill and his cohorts, essentially providing for public financial support for future private profit accumulation. This was all to be done in the name of reforming education for our children.
The arguments embraced by Hill et. al. basically harkens back to pro-school choice advocacy arguments but with a new, perhaps fatal twist for public schools; for what Hill sees for urban education in particular and for education in general, is the development of a new governance structure as well as a new delivery system for schools — one that is firmly under private management and control while being quintessentially publicly financed. So, for example, while today many citizens are demanding a public option or ‘public choice’, as it pertains to the provision of health care in an effort to compete with private health care providers to reduce costs and provide and maintain quality health care for all citizens, Hill and his colleagues reverse the paradigm and call for a private option in the public realm, which they claim will give parents a ‘public choice’. It would also at the same time equate freedom not with the public good, but with individual competition and individual choices. The wider concern for any social concerns would be provided for by the ‘free market’ as the arbitrator of democracy and liberty thereby at the same time produce and provide quality education for all citizens. The political economic irony is compelling but the ideology is consistent; only private, individual choices within a capitalist market can provide real quality education and institutions need to be created that are privately run yet publicly funded. The market makes the rules; the market is the realm of freedom.
This is ideology, which is the epitome of neo-liberal economics developed most notably by Milton Friedman and carried on by the Chicago School of Economics where he and other neo-liberal economic conservatives both taught and developed their ideological experiments that were to take place in Chile, Argentina, Asia and the former Soviet Union, also argued that that the speed, suddenness and scope of large economic shifts, disasters and transformations would provoke psychological reactions in the public mind that would serve to “facilitate the adjustment” in thought and reality on the part of the public in accepting new and severe economic policies — what he called “the shock doctrine”. The “shock doctrine” would include rapid privatization, the imposition of tax cuts, free trade, privatized services, cuts to social spending, massive deregulation, selling off state assets and centralized control, all part of the economic ingredients for neo-liberal economic policies put in place in Latin America, Asia and the former Soviet Union by Friedman ideologists, endearingly labeled ‘The Chicago Boys’. However, as Naomi Klein keenly observed in her bestselling book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism:
Friedman’s Chicago School movement has been conquering territory around the world since the seventies, but until recently its vision had never been fully applied in the country of origin. Certainly Reagan had made headway, but the U.S. retained a welfare system, social security and public schools, where parents clung, in Friedman’s words, to their irrational attachment to the socialist system” (Klein 2007).
That all changed in 1995 when the Republican Party gained control of the Congress. Now it was finally possible to consider the “shock doctrine” within the context of the American economic and political landscape. David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, perhaps said it best when elaborating on the manner of rapidly and quickly transforming economic policies here at home:
Here’s how I think we should do it. Instead of cutting incrementally – a little here, a little there – I would say that on a single day this summer we eliminate three hundred programs, each one costing a billion dollars or less. Maybe these cuts won’t make a big deal of difference, but boy, do they make a point. And you can do them right away (ibid).
Little did Frum know that just a few years later his plan would be put in place in the new reconfiguration of New Orleans public schools. The disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina meant that the political and social issues facing New Orleans schools could now fall under the counsel of the economic theories Friedman had devised for years and he cautioned, before he died, that policy makers in New Orleans must act quickly to impose rapid and irreversible changes in the educational institutions and systems before a crisis ridden public became aware of the stark economic policy changes, in essence before they could organize and oppose these policies. A new language had to be invented to sell the idea to an unwitting public. “Clean sheets”, “exciting opportunities for reform”, and “new beginnings” “renaissance’ and countless more were the common euphemisms found in the parlance of politicians, conservative think tank ideologues and of course among the new business elite descending on the city directly after the disaster in an effort to topple the current educational system and replace it with one based on privatization theories of human economic and social life. As Naomi Klein notes:
Most people who survive a devastating disaster want the opposite of a clean slate: they want to salvage whatever they can and begin repairing what was not destroyed; they want to reaffirm their relatedness to the places that formed them. “When I rebuild the city I feel like I am rebuilding myself”, said Cassandra Andrews, a resident of New Orleans’s heavily damaged Lower Ninth Ward, as she cleared away debris after the storm. But disaster capitalists have no interest in repairing what was. In Iraq, Sri Lanka and New Orleans, the process deceptively called “reconstruction” began with finishing the job of the original disaster by erasing what was left of the public sphere and rooted communities, then quickly moving to replace them with a kind of corporate New Jerusalem – all before the victims of war or natural disaster were able to regroup and stake their claims to what was theirs (ibid).
Not so for the disaster capitalists, social engineers and think tank pundits who seek to replace public entities with privatized new ones in accordance with their theories that freedom can only be found in the marketplace. Orchestrated raids on the public sphere, whether they exist in Argentina or New Orleans, by capitalists seeking exciting new markets to exploit, can take place when disaster is viewed as an economic opportunity. Again, Klein is salient here:
I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, “disaster capitalism” (ibid).
And so it was to be, that a small cabal of conservative right wing forces were able to capitalize on the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina in their heady efforts to overhaul one of the worst public educational systems in the country. A new educational system would be built practically overnight with new roles for the public and private sector, a new language of the marketplace, spoken by new social engineers and technocrats. The government or in this case the ‘public school management structure’, would now ‘orchestrate’ the new private stakeholders and non-profit philanthropic ‘providers’ that would emerge overnight to form a new charterized, contract school system inching ever closer and closer to privatization. At the time and continuing today, this was and is all being bundled up and reported in the press as ‘an experiment in choice’ in schools for parents and students, when in fact it is and was an elaborate private takeover involving little public input or democratic decision making, let alone public disclosure, transparency or ‘choice’. The irony, or perhaps the tragedy of it all, is that the people of New Orleans, those remaining at the time along with the 250,000 dispossessed, never ‘chose’ this new system that was now being ideologically constructed, implemented and codified into law and sold as ‘public choice’. Instead they saw, or perhaps missed due to both the disaster and displacement wrought by Katrina as well as the exuberant corporate media coverage that failed to critically examine the new plans for education, the fact that they, like increasingly most of the American economy, such as the military, the prison system, the health care industry, and the myriad of countless private contracting schemes were now caught up in the web of one of the most radical movements for wholesale privatization this country had ever seen.
Implementing the blue print for change:
In a speech given to the American Youth Forum in 2001, years before Katrina, Hill was quick to point out that current city school systems are inflexible, troublesome political systems:
Central offices are full of warlords who are funded by federal funds and supported by federal policy.” Unfortunately, cities lack a set of strategies to deal with these problems. The Federal government could be called upon to use its bully pulpit to intervene in city politics in order to give reform efforts a fighting chance (Hill 2001).
The ‘fighting chance’ Hill spoke so eloquently about in 2001 presented itself as an immediate opportunity following the disaster that Katrina bestowed on the city and the federal government was indeed involved, as we noted in chapter three, doling out millions for the effort after the hurricane. This was to be the opportunity to launch the strategy that Friedman and his powerful allies had long argued for: you simply wait for a powerful crisis (natural or economic) and then step in quickly to sell off state assets and implement radical privatization methods for economic ‘reform’ while the public is still stumbling, disoriented, and confused from the shock; it’s basically a form of ‘regime change’, whether it takes place in ravaged New Orleans or abroad. As Klein notes, in this way the reforms become permanent, both on the ground and in public minds (Klein 2007).
As investigative reporter, Paul Tough writes in an exhaustive investigative piece in the New York Times regarding the newly birthed, New Orleans contract, charter school system, this is precisely what transpired. Immediately after the hurricane powerful, elite social forces descended on the city to lubricate the way for “the shock doctrine”, or what market fundamentalists euphemistically prefer to call “educational reform” or “reconstruction”. The opportunity had finally arisen to inch towards the privatization of whole the school system and now newly anointed educational “reconstruction” czars for the city, Paul Vallas and Paul Pastorek, were poised to implement a new strategy for New Orleans Public schools; the ideology behind the new facts on the ground would be privatization, or the reliance on a new interlocking web of markets, both profit and non-profit, to provide an educational system for New Orlean’s children. According to Tough, Hill’s model for the Diverse Providers Strategy would be what would be adapted for New Orleans:
It is this model (the Diverse Providers Strategy) that Pastorek and Vallas have adapted for New Orleans (Tough 2008).
With the hostile takeover of the New Orleans educational system that ensued immediately after the hurricane, schools in New Orleans now would be charterized – this would necessitate that they be run as schools under contract, and this would mean they would receive money on a per-student basis which principals, now called ‘CEOs’ could then use to staff their schools as they liked and pay for whatever instructional methods they chose. Each contract charter school would now have the power to negotiate salaries and work rules directly with their teachers and staff, there would no longer be any central union for collective bargaining purposes, in fact there would be no union at all. The system’s small central office would be operate and be responsible only for oversight of the contract charter schools and their providers in assuring they met the ‘targets’ and ‘efficiency demands’ demanded of the testing regime under No Child Left Behind, though the public office would also have considerable power to hold CEO’s, accountable and they would also have the power to hire and fire them. The narrow testing regiment under No Child Left Behind would actually serve to help the new ‘providers’ of education to meet their ‘benchmarks’ and ‘performance targets’, thereby offering measurement guidelines to help the providers stay in business. The schools that didn’t produce results in accordance with the standardized tests codified into law by NCLB would be deemed “failing schools” and they would be closed and successful schools would then be imitated and replicated, with new ‘providers’, either profit or non-profit. These new providers would then be awarded contracts to run schools based on their past performance in achieving the educational efficiency targets and performance demands set up by the system. The whole restructuring effort had the smell of a silent military coup; it was practically accomplished overnight and was quick, brutal and done in a climate of secrecy with little public disclosure or significant and critical media coverage.
Directly after the hurricane, it was obvious to those in power that new entrepreneurial leadership to implement the regime change was going to be needed immediately with ‘boots on the ground’, to employ the ‘shock therapy’. Enter Paul Pastorek, former president of the New Orleans state school and now the state superintendent of education. He was quickly ushered in to help run the new “reform” effort. Pastorek had come to believe, in concert with Hill and those who held the same conservative free-market ideology, that the problem with ailing school systems was their governance structure that hindered the freedom only found in the marketplace. Traditional schools, he argued, are run from the top down and this, according to Pastorek, is the problem. Or so he said:
The command and control structure can produce marginal improvements. But what’s clear to me is that it can only get you so far. If you create a system where initiative and creativity is valued and rewarded, then you’ll get change from the bottom up. If you create a system where people are told what to do and how to do it, then you will get change from the top down. We’ve been doing top down for many years in Louisiana. All we have is islands of excellence amidst a sea of failure (Tough 2008).
A system that rewarded efficiency through incentives that encouraged meeting performance targets had to be established in order to create the new charterized network of schools. Pastorek needed assistance to swiftly carry out the lofty privatization ideals of Hill and the free market reformers so he called his old friend, the head of the Philadelphia public school system, Paul Vallas to come to work in New Orleans to help him manage the new reconstruction effort. Vallas, who was then embroiled in a dispute over fiscal deficits in the Philadelphia school system he was running at the time, accepted the job to run the New Orleans Recovery School District, the government entity that controlled many of the public schools in New Orleans before and after the hurricane. As of today, between them, the two men currently run the New Orleans public school system, now an increasing patchwork of contract charter schools spurred on with public and increasingly greater sums of philanthropic funds. And unlike the rhetoric they employ, they seem to run the system from the top down.
Since the hostile takeover of New Orleans’ public schools, the educational system in New Orleans is now made up of interlocking organizational structures administering 86 public schools. There are basically three agencies: The Recovery School District, the Orleans Parish School Board and state school board. The law passed after Katrina that that allowed the Recovery School District to expand (RSD) gave it the power to take over any “failing” school in the city, which meant virtually every school in the city except for the selective-admission magnet schools; this was the government agency Vallas was to run. The Orleans Parish School Board would be left responsibility for those magnet schools that existed here and there as well as the oversight and control of five schools and it would be limited to the oversight of 12 independently run charter schools. The Orleans Parish School Board was an elected group that before the flood controlled the entire educational system. Two charter schools that existed before Katrina are currently overseen by the state school board. There are now 33 charters under the supervision of the Recovery School District and there are 34 schools run directly by the RSD.
According to Tough’s 2008 reporting in the New York Times:
Pastorek and Vallas are employing two parallel strategies for the Recovery School District. First, they’re instituting a series of ambitious reforms in the district-run schools. They have expanded the school day by an hour and a half and are trying to extend the school year from 173 days to 193 days. This year teachers (who are working without a collective bargaining agreement) were each given a $3,000 raise. And in every school, principals and teachers are being trained in the “best practices” of the country’s leading charter schools (ibid).
In practice, Tough found that the new, charterized educational system currently in place in New Orleans continues to be vastly and inherently unequal and racially and class stratified, with each network administered by different rules serving a different demographic and student population. So, for example, most of the Orleans Parish schools and charters construct the upper class of the new privatized network system; they are ‘selective’ schools, admitting students on the basis of test scores and writing samples which, in some cases give preferences to residents of the well-off neighborhood surrounding the school. As a consequence, they are the only public schools in the city with any significant population of middle-class white students. They are also the best performing schools when measured against standardized tests. The Lusher Charter School we looked at in chapter four would fall into this category; it is an elite educational enclave available only to a small, select group of students.. On the other hand, the Recovery School District charters are open enrollment schools, which means they are required to accept students from anywhere in the city, regardless of academic performance. They have fewer white middle-class students and are highly segregated and composed of basically a lower socio-economic class of students; they service primarily the ‘subprime’ kids. In the Orleans Parish charters for example, 19 percent of students are deemed “talented and gifted,” compared with just 1 percent of students in Recovery School District-run schools and charters. All around the country social inequality has been advancing for decades with more extreme consequences. The radical social engineers now at work in New Orleans, with their ideological emphasis on freedom through economic markets, is creating a new class based school system masquerading under the auspices of reform; and it is being developed without hardly any oversight, public input or public disclosure. As Tough cites:
The schools run directly by the Recovery district, as a result, are the schools of last resort, the schools required to admit every student: the kids who can’t get into selective schools, the ones who get kicked out of charter schools, the ones who arrive in New Orleans in the middle of the school year, the ones whose parents couldn’t get it together to find them anything better (ibid).
The New Orleans educational system, ‘free market’ rhetoric aside, is being designed by a few strong actors, many of them the usual suspects, and at a high cost to taxpayers. Vallas, for example, is well-known nationally and in conservative circles as a “turnaround superintendent” for having ‘fixed’ (meaning led them on the road to privatization) the educational systems in Philadelphia and Chicago, while Pastorek served on the Louisiana State Board of Education from 1996 to 2004. Pastorek is also a partner with Adams & Reese law firm in Louisiana and when Pastorek took office in 2007, he did so with the promise of a yearly $227,249 salary, a $48,000 annual housing allowance and a yearly car allowance of $24,000, bringing his total compensation package to $299,249. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) voted 10-1 Feb. 21, 2008 to give Pastorek another raise, this time a 16.7 percent increase bringing his compensation to a whopping $349,249, or 32 percent higher than his predecessor (Maloney 2008).
Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas draws a $238,386 yearly salary with a $4,000-per-year allowance for housing and travel (ibid). All of these huge sums spent on management while teachers are expected to work ten hour days, be available for weekends and receive salaries lower than teachers in many, if not most, other states. High administrative salaries and low teacher costs are all part of the neo-liberal “reconstruction” efforts in the city of New Orleans.
Both men are now responsible for implementing the new economic governance plan proposed by Hill, but it was not going to be easy, especially after the hurricane and they knew immediately they were going to need help — a team of like-minded ‘reformers’. So Vallas looked to Gary Robichaux, who only two weeks before Katrina hit the city, opened the first charter school in New Orleans associated with the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). Quoting Tough:
Last summer, Vallas persuaded Robichaux to leave his new KIPP school in the French Quarter to oversee the Recovery School District’s elementary and middle schools and Robichaux is frank now about his intentions for his new job: he wants to apply as much of the KIPP model to the Recovery schools as he can. He has brought dozens of principals to visit the school he used to run, to observe the KIPP model up close, and this summer he conducted mandatory leadership training for the top administrators in each school.
Although Vallas is a believer, in theory, in decentralization, he and Robichaux are providing a great deal of centralized support for the schools in the Recovery School District. They have created a “managed curriculum” for every school in the district to follow: detailed binders that each teacher can consult to see which skills and what knowledge they should be imparting each week and month in order to keep up with the state’s standards. The RSD requires its schools to administer regular “benchmarking” assessments to each child in the district in each core subject, to monitor how much is being learned — and taught — in each classroom.
But at the same time that Pastorek and Vallas and Robichaux are trying to improve the RSD’s direct-run schools, they are also helping to create a competitive framework citywide that will most likely drive many of those schools out of existence. Part of the competition comes from a new voucher program, pushed through by Gov. Bobby Jindal, that will pay for nearly 900 New Orleans elementary-school students to attend private and parochial schools this year. But the more significant lever of change is charters — schools that get public money and are overseen by a government entity but are managed by an independent board. Pastorek, Vallas and Robichaux all say they expect charters to expand their presence in the district, to a point where 75 percent or even 90 percent of the city’s schools are charters (Tough 2008).
Nurturing and developing the RSD as a public school district is not in the cards for the new “reformers”. Implementing the new charterized contract schools in accordance with the Diverse Providers Strategy however is; it remains the heart of the new school agenda, the primary goal of both Pastorek and Vallas and they are hurriedly and doggedly carrying out this strategy of radical social and economic engineering with lightening speed. They are both intent on creating the “competitive framework” as part of the market based, social engineering and experimentation that they are conducting in New Orleans. They want to see the new ‘experiment’ work so they can take it nationally, show it to other school districts in an effort to convince them that radical restructuring, favoring market principles and reforms is the only way to organize education. Darran Simon, writing for the Times Picayune reported in 2008:
The Recovery School District is forging ahead with long-range plans to give charter status — and thus more independence — to many of the schools it still operates in New Orleans.
As the first step, it plans to convert four low-performing schools to charters next year, ending the current even split between 33 charters and 33 non-charter schools, or those that the district operates directly. One of the goals is providing an infusion of help to schools that need it the most.
The plan, backed by state Superintendent of Education, Paul Pastorek, reflects a desire by state education officials to charter most New Orleans schools operated by the Recovery District, which took over failing schools in New Orleans in 2005 (Simon 2008).
Tough goes further, exposing with particularity some aspects of the ‘plan’:
Their evolving plan would involve both the highest- and the lowest-performing schools in the Recovery School District becoming charters, though in different ways. Principals at high-performing Recovery district schools will be encouraged to apply for a charter that would let them run their schools independently — essentially, to “graduate” out of the control of the district. On the other end of the performance scale, schools that consistently fall short of state standards, even after all of the training and support that Vallas can muster, will be seized by the RSD, which will either hand the school over to a new or existing charter-school provider or shut it down and replace it with a new charter school. Failing charter schools will also be taken over or closed down, by having their charters revoked or transferred to another charter provider (Tough 2008).
Of course the charter providers are hopefully going to be increasingly for-profit ventures and when they are not, such as the case with non-profit charter school providers or EMOs, they will work to create an infrastructure that can one day easily be handed over to new, for-profit EMOs and private interest concerns at no cost to them. In this case, the infrastructure involves developing a new model for institutionalized control of schools by private forces, as opposed to public control. Basically, the plan is to create the economic conditions and institutions whereby the New Orleans educational system becomes tethered to a new educational model — publicly financed, privately run contracted charter schools with no messy teachers unions, no burdensome regulations and oversight and more importantly — no collective bargaining for teachers.
Starting from scratch: philanthropy and the new social engineering
In order to put the The Diverse Providers Strategy in place, the 4,700 plus member teachers union had to be completely dissolved and its teachers fired, which is what happened almost overnight, directly after the hurricane. It had to be dissolved because in the minds of the new reformers, teacher unions and collective bargaining are bad; they get in the way of implementing the new educational design for the city which is to be done autocratically. Teacher unions impose the need for bargaining over shares of ‘profit’, they impose accountability measures, require public oversight, transparency, and public disclosure and more disturbingly, from the point of view of the pro-market reformers, they operate to create a social contract with school management for they encourage active participation in decision making. This is everything the free market fundamentalists admonish and fear most.
In an article entitled, Charter Schools’ Big Experiment New Orleans’s Post-Katrina Test May Offer Lessons for Ailing Systems, that appeared in the Washington Post in June of 2008, Jay Mathews a long time follower of the charter school ‘experiment’ in New Orleans, stated the new autocratic management plan quit succinctly:
For these new schools with taxpayer funding and independent management, old rules and habits are out. No more standard hours, seniority, union contracts, shared curriculum or common textbooks. In are a crowd of newcomers — critics call them opportunists — seeking to lift standards and achievement. They compete for space, steal each other’s top teachers and wonder how it is all going to work (Mathews 2008)..
Mathews was right, this was to be a teachable moment for teachers as well as students and the public. For immediately after the hurricane, teachers who once held steady jobs, pension plans, health care benefits, paid vacations, sick leave, collective bargaining rights, collaborative curriculum construction with other teachers and a modicum of decision making power over the day to day operations of the public schools were no longer even players in the game. Their jobs, their livelihoods and their positions had vanished overnight. Hill’s plan was on its way to fruition – decisions now would be made in accordance with the radical autocratic restructuring of the New Orleans school system mired in collapse and struggling in the midst of disaster. There existed little public input in regards to the new the plan, nor were there many public hearings regarding any of the decisions that were executed; nor would there be many opportunities in the future for such democratic policy making for it was an anathema to the ‘shock doctrine’ policies of the new reformers. With the teachers union gone and the teachers with it, the system seemed to be now run by a secret parliament made up of business interests, lobbyists, think tank ideologues, conservative politicians, philanthropists and media pundits rushing to sell the idea of a new “reconstructed” school system to a battered New Orleans public and a shaken nation.
Along with the firings of all the teachers, as author Kenneth Saltman writes in his book, Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools:
traditional modes of public administration and oversight, damaged though they were in New Orleans and elsewhere, have been jettisoned as a result of the voucher and charter schemes where corporate models dominate all aspects of school administration and process, resulting in authoritarian forms of management that, in addition to other things, have promoted “shoddy hiring practices” and intensified a pre-existing trend of putting squeezes on teachers to do “more with less (Saltman 2007).
Indeed, from the point of view of the new social engineers, it seems that one of the reasons that New Orleans offers promising opportunities for deeply institutionalized market-based reforms is precisely because there is little shared power or decision-making, scant public oversight and thus little need for public disclosure. Vallas is very frank and even a bit arrogant when he speaks of his new, autocratic power:
No one tells me how long my school day should be or my school year should be. Nobody tells me who to hire or who not to hire. I can hire the most talented people. I can promote people based on merit and performance. I can dismiss people if they are chronically non-attending or if they’re simply not performing (Tough 2008).
Yet doesn’t this new authoritarian control model appear on the surface to run counter to Paul Pastorek’s enthusiastic support of a new model for school governance that avoids the top down command style he eschews? Nevertheless, while Vallas is rejoicing — for he has no checks and balances, no one to answer to, there is no school board to tell him what to do, no collective bargaining agreements to enter into, no regulations that offer large hurdles to his command and control and no unions to speak of — Pastorek, on the other hand, is counting on the combined components of non-profit human-capital pipelines being currently set up by KIPP and others along with the philanthropic seed money of the Gates Foundation and Walton Foundation to make it much easier, in the coming years, or so he hopes, for him to accomplish the complete overhaul of the old system in favor of new contract charterized school system of made up of educational retail franchises.
According to Tough:
Each year he (Pastorkek) hopes to have a handful of new schools ready to open, each one led by a Gates-financed, fully incubated, KIPP-marinated principal— the kind of academic superheroes who before the storm just didn’t come to work in New Orleans in big numbers. Inevitably, he’ll make space for them. And before long, that annual handful will add up. In a city like New York, with its 1,400 public schools, new-school innovations can seem like pebbles tossed into the ocean. But in a city with fewer than 100 schools, 5 or 6 new schools a year will have a big impact (ibid).
But who would pay for all the restructuring that was necessary for the free market reformers eager to get their hands on the working machinery and levers of education in New Orleans? The answer was to be found in the elite philanthropic community and the closely knit group of financiers, entrepreneurs, and business interests that descended on the city directly after the tragedy. With shrinking revenues and cash strapped counties and municipalities writhing in fiscal agony, philanthropic charitable giving is and was essential to fund the thorough takeover of the system and the creation of the ideological framework and structure concocted by Hill and others; so were to be the federal government monies doled out after the hurricane, as was the financial backing by other entrepreneurs eager to get in the business of schools.
In 2007, Patrik Jonsson, writing an in depth investigative piece on New Orleans and the rebuilding of the city for the Christian Science Monitor, commented on the enormous sums of private monies that were flowing into the city directly after the hurricane:
Billions of federal dollars have been allotted or spent in New Orleans since hurricane Katrina, so it may come as a surprise that the first public works project in the city’s long-term recovery – the Rosa Keller Library in the middle-class Broadmoor neighborhood – was not paid for by American taxpayers but by the Carnegie Foundation in New York.
Government money is still trickling through the pipeline: On Monday, Louisiana recovery officials approved $117 million for the first post-Katrina community development grants. But with the long wait for cash, private foundations, wealthy individuals, and philanthropies have stepped in, playing a bigger role in the city’s rebuilding than ever expected.
The monies for rebuilding are coming first from private sources … and that is definitely what is leading the recovery effort,” says Doug Ahlers, a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “Government funding is slow to arrive and is … not playing a leadership role.” (Jonsson 2007).
As we noted in the discussion of New Orleans in chapter three, much of the private and philanthropic funds were targeted at the New Orleans public school system to both dismantle the existing system and to be used as a fulcrum to leverage the building of the new, privatized contract charter system. Hill had been advocating philanthropic monies as a fulcrum of change for years. In fact, Tough notes in his piece that Hill even argued against giving any philanthropic funds to the old system of education in New Orleans after the hurricane – let it die of its own accord, seemed to be the prevalent philosophy.
To aid and abet the new radical restructuring of the New Orleans public schools, Pastorek and Vallas are counting on a powerful alliance of non-profits supported by philanthropic money from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Foundation and others. They want to use the funds they receive from these sources to recruit and train new charter school ‘operators’ and to help provide them the support and the personnel they need to set up and run consistently high-quality charter schools with what they like to call “best practices”. The role of the emerging alliance between non-profit EMOs in tandem with the philanthropic funds is not only to cement the seed money needed for future charter start-ups, but also to function as a sort of Chamber of Commerce for the burgeoning charter school movement and growing network of increasingly private providers. The public school system, with the help of the new philanthropists, would now serve the private sector.
Yet according to proclamations in the media at the time, national charter school leaders claimed they had not planned a massive takeover of the public school district after Katrina. They said all they simply wanted to do was just help out. According to Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-charter Center for Education Reform, when speaking of New Orleans, she commented:
Charter educators and friends took games and books and organized dozens of small classrooms while the national government scratched its head over what to do (Mathews 2008).
The true story was to be entirely different.
To begin with, the haste within which the dismantling of New Orleans public educational system was accomplished was breathtaking. According to Jay Matthews, writer for the Washington Post and a reporter who has covered much that has gone on in the New Orleans public education system since Katrina, radical educational reforms such as the ones proposed and eventually adopted in New Orleans were already in play in other parts of the nation. The difference with New Orleans, he writes:
Some cities are moving in this direction, but none has ever moved so far, so fast. Three in every 10 D.C. public school students are in charters, a much larger percentage than in most cities. The New Orleans charter school penetration rate is much greater: 53 percent of the post-Katrina enrollment of 33,200 students, according to school officials. Before the hurricane, charters had about 2 percent of the city’s 67,000 public students (ibid).
New Orleans promised to be different; for philanthropic money, ideological high-spiritedness, a federal law called NCLB that enabled privatization and thus measurement outcomes for the new providers, millions in new federal funds for the new plan and the redefinition of charter school ‘providers’ to include EMOs and independent operators all worked in tandem after the disaster to make up the elements of a perfect storm — one which would become translated into new liaisons and alliances necessary to carry out the “reconstruction” of the system. This of course meant new roles for teachers and in fact, it meant completely new teachers with newly designed roles. As Tough writes in the New York Times:
At the center of this alliance is a well-financed organization called New Schools for New Orleans, run by a former KIPP executive and a former Teach for America administrator. This month, five schools incubated at New Schools for New Orleans will open their doors, including Miller-McCoy; next year there will most likely be four more. The New Orleans office of New Leaders for New Schools, meanwhile, will be training a new group of principals each year; five of the six members of this year’s “class” are going into positions leading charters. Teach for America’s regional operation in Greater New Orleans is growing quickly; its incoming class is the second-largest one in the country after New York City’s. Each year, the group plans to send 50 or more teachers into charters in the Recovery district, where they will serve as a well-educated and highly motivated, if inexperienced, labor force for the start-ups. (At the same time, Teach for America is sending 75 teachers this year into direct-run Recovery schools, where it perceives a greater need.) Finally, a group called teach NOLA recruited about 100 new teachers this year, mostly career-changing professionals, and three-quarters of them will work in charters (Tough 2008).
Training new teachers, instead of employing old ones, is part of an effort to not simply to avoid old practices by old teachers, but also to instruct the new teachers in the “best practices” and the ‘managed curriculum’ the new schools now offered, while at the same time assuring no former pro-union teachers be included in the new mix. Teachers would be given the newly created “managed curriculum” with the detailed binders that each would need to consult to see which skills and what knowledge they would be imparting each week and month in order to keep up with the state’s standards. This was the new accountability system: teachers would still “teach to the test” but under new guidelines, with new employers and laboring within a newly concocted system. Teachers were now to be considered as dispensaries of narrow facts to be tested, scored and monitored to assure the system was achieving the targeted outcomes.
The new graduating class of Teach for America (though the second largest in the nation, New York being the site of the largest) is usually young and inexperienced, and has little historical or contemporary knowledge of the workings of an educational teacher’s union. This is not their fault nor should it seem strange for any coverage of labor struggles or issues confronting working people in this country are seldom found in the corporate media and when they are, unions and their members are usually depicted as villains. In the United States in the year 1950 there were several hundred full time labor reporters and editors at U.S. daily newspapers; fifty years later, by the end of the 20th century, there were barely any. Business news would be the rage of the day and it continues unabated (Bellamy et. al. 2009). This is all fortuitous for the new re-constructionists, for the architects of the new school privatization restructuring effort are counting on a non-unionized work force to make the whole plan work.
Let us take a cursory look at a study done by charter school researcher, Amy Wells, conducted in 2001. Wells studied eight unionized conversion charter schools in California and found that all but one charter school maintained their union affiliations. However, during the course of her study she also was able to discern that none of the start-up charter schools, those not converted, became unionized. She found when interviewing teachers that some said that new teachers should have similar benefits as those teachers in unions. But she also found that in one charter school she looked at in California, the Imperial Way Charter School, teachers opted out of the union bargaining unit when the union and sponsoring district required that the charter begin paying into the teachers’ retirement fund. The principal or ‘CEO’ of the school refused to do this and thus ended the relationship between union and charter. When the decision was made to abandon the bargaining unit, Wells found that many veteran teachers, although they professed a deep commitment to the charter school, simply quit: they left the charter schools employment. They were not ready to abandon the rights accorded to teachers in unions. As we will see, they are not alone. (Wells 2002)
In the same study, Well’s looked interviewed teachers in some of the new, start-up charter schools, many who had never been members of a teachers union. What she found was that the teachers were either ambivalent about the union or they strongly rejected unions in general. Many teachers when asked about the union were so ill-informed that they did not even know if they were members of a union or not; nor did they seem to care. And for other teachers she interviewed the perception was that the union represented a roadblock to reform. These teachers identified their class interests with the management of the school, not with the workers, staff and unions. According to one of the younger teachers at The Academic Charter School in California:
I don’t see the (the union) as a need here, and if I ever got to the point where I saw it as a need, I probably wouldn’t be here (ibid)
Wells also found that the administrators at The Academic Charter School seemed to create an anti-union environment which set an intimidating, or at least one can say not an invitational tone, for the young teachers who might be thinking of unionizing, arguing, as did one administrator:
I mean in some districts you have a union for everything. Its like, how many contracts do you have before nobody is able to operate other than like in this square box? (ibid)
Finally, at the Shoreline Charter School in California, Wells found that many teachers not only rejected representation by the union but in the words of one teacher she interviewed:
The community almost was unanimously opposed to (any) union activities (in the charter school) at all (ibid).
Wells discovered in her study and interviews that the founders of Shoreline had made significant efforts to head off any unionization by ensuring they offered salaries equivalent to the district wide salaries, as well as the opportunity to receive performance bonuses and economic incentives. For many teachers, this bought off the need for any unionization. Wells again is salient here when talking about teaching staff at the charter schools she examined:
Yet younger teachers or those who were new to the profession generally lacked a vested interest in the union and any understanding of the benefits to be derived from union membership. These teachers were much more likely to be working in start-up charter schools and to express a desire to distance themselves from the status quo. Thus, for the most part, teacher’s decisions about unions followed the lines of their status as working in either start-up or conversion charter schools (ibid).
The non-unionized, freshly cut graduates of the Teach for America program slated for New Orleans and the new charter start-ups have become the ‘reserve labor’ force necessary to implement the new neo-liberal takeover of New Orleans public schools. They are generally young, eager and no doubt an innovative crowd but they will be counted on to offer no resistance to the decision-making plans of the new school czars; they are expected to ‘fall in line’ with the “best practices” and the “managed curriculum”. Working hand-in-hand with the KIPP organization the new teachers will be taught the “best practices” of KIPP. This in part will mean that they will be required to work far more than eight hours per day, for less pay, as well as more days per year (as mentioned earlier, the New Orlean’s school year has been increased by 20 days) and as we saw when we looked at KIPP, they will now need to sign commitment forms, forcing them to be available on weekends and basically “on-call”; all of this without the benefits and working conditions associated with former unionized teachers – benefits such as health care, an eight hour day, vacation pay, collective bargaining rights, grievance procedures, curriculum development and power sharing in the affairs of the schools within which they work. This new generation of teachers that are currently working and will be working in the New Orleans’ reconstructed educational system, are evidently expected to be part of the ‘new philanthropy’ promoted by the architectures of the reforms, donating sixty or more hours per week of their lives for the benefit of the “kids”. As teachers, it seems they are being asked to think of themselves as philanthropists, not as professional teachers with lives outside of the classroom and families to support. This is a very different message than the teacher’s unions give teachers when they ask them to think of themselves as working professionals and to take pride and ownership in their profession. Even entrepreneur, Steve Wilson saw problems early on with the KIPP business plan. Commenting on KIPP’s model his book, Wilson brings up the point that the demands made on teachers and staff could be unsustainable as they are currently designed:
The first three replication schools posted strong gains on spring 2002 tests, and the KIPP brand remains strong. But the organization faces challenges. The extraordinary commitment KIPP demands of its school leaders and staff may not be sustainable. To sustain quality and preserve its brand, KIPP National may be forced to parachute in to rescue struggling schools. Can enough high quality fellows be identified to meet KIPP”s ambitious agenda for expansion? If launching and supporting many small schools proves more costly than anticipated, will KIPP’s backers be willing to foot the bill? (Wilson 2006).
The answer to Wilson’s question was to be found in February 2009 when KIPP teachers in the South Bronx of New York decided it was about time they started a teachers union to get some control over their working lives and the decision-making at their schools, and this is precisely what they did.
But now the neo-liberals have come up with an even more grotesque plan. They want to reward corporate charter schools with Race to the Top monies under the regime of Viceroy Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education. As I wrote in an article recently for Counterpunch, Duncan is extorting states to follow his educational roadmap by refusing to give monies to states that say, cap charter schools or do not allow them to proliferate as fast as their cancer our souls would like.
State Superintendent Paul Pastorek now wants to take the RTTT monies and starve the school systems by giving the monies over to charters unless these public schools simply shred their collective bargaining agreements. This is the great Race to the Top, lowering teachers’ decision making and collective bargaining rights, tying their pay to NCLB performance metrics, while incarcerating students into make-believe schools, uniformed and uninformed. The way the great blackmail scheme is to work now is that those schools that do not tear up their collective bargaining agreements and/or tie teacher pay to student performance on the conveyor belt of despair noted as No Child Left Behind, will simply be starved of needed funds. Charters will then vacuum up the monies necessitated in the most dire schools. According to the Times-Picayune:
. . .State Superintendent Paul Pastorek told state lawmakers this week that the shift to focus more heavily on “building great (school) leaders and teachers” stems from revised information released by the U.S. Department of Education, which will dole out the unprecedented competitive grant money. Pastorek said participating districts must have or agree to build a strong teacher and administrator evaluation process that will be used in deciding pay, promotion, professional development and retention.” If you are going to evaluate people, use it, ” he said. The paper went on to note that:
Not every district will necessarily have to conduct evaluations in the someway, state department of education officials said. But at least half of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on student performance. Pastorek said that rewarding teachers based on how much progress they make with individual students might encourage strong teachers to go to high-needs schools where they can make greater gains. While Pastorek said he thought the shift away from overhauling low-performing schools would make the proposal more palatable to some, the mandate to link teacher pay to student performance might discourage districts for a whole different set of reasons. To join the state’s application, school districts need the superintendent, school board and union president — where applicable — to sign on. Education officials noted that linking hiring and pay decisions to student test scores might require changes to collective bargaining agreements between districts and their teachers unions. Some charter schools that constitute their own districts are also eligible to apply. Since charters control their own employee pay and hiring decisions, opposition from teachers unions or pre-existing collective bargaining agreements are less likely to be an issue for them. A considerable amount of money could be at stake. The state plans to apply for $300 million, which would be split between statewide initiatives and block grants to participating districts. Earlier estimates from the department of education put potential funding for Louisiana, widely considered a strong contender for a share of the money, at $250 million..
So the plan is clear as it has been for some time. Use charter schools as a Trojan Horse to then break the backs of public teacher unions which means both a race to the bottom for students and a race to the dungeons of history for teachers.
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