Schools hit after Hurricane Katrina

Parents have less say in the rebuilt New Orleans school system.

Karran Harper Royal: Charter schools have been the “disaster after the disaster”.

American public education advocate Karran Harper Royal has warned Australian parents and teachers that the introduction of privately run public schools in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina has been “the disaster after the disaster”.

During a visit to Federation in March, Ms Harper Royal met with Aboriginal Education Coordinator Charline Emzin-Boyd, and explained that the autonomy given to newly created charter schools in New Orleans had not necessarily led to improved learning conditions for students.

“You basically have a public school at public expense operated by a private entity,” she said.

“The schools don’t really have any special curriculum that makes them better. They have more autonomy to do what they want to do in the classroom, but that does not make them a better fit for children.”

Ms Harper Royal described charter schools as mostly “test prep factories” given that they are so concerned with meeting their academic goals, which are based on scores on a test. She said this does not encourage schools to develop well-rounded education programs.

Educational curriculum in charter schools is different for every school, Ms Harper Royal added.
“As the tests change, schools change their curriculum. That’s why it’s very difficult to say, ‘Because of this curriculum, students learn better.’ There is no set curriculum.”

A founding member of US lobby and advocacy group Parents Across America, Ms Harper Royal said one of the ways charter schools were sold to parents was with the idea that their children’s education would benefit from increased choice. However, this concept of choice is misleading, she suggested.

“Charter School leaders are fond of saying that in New Orleans you have school choice, so if you don’t like the way the school operates, you can change schools. But schools do the choosing more often.

“There are good charter schools but when you look at why those schools are good, you find they have in some way manipulated their enrolment: either on the front end by having selective admissions criteria, or on the back end by having behaviour policies that would cause the most difficult students to eventually leave the school.”

Following Hurricane Katrina, more than 7500 teachers and support staff workers found their positions gone. Many of those who tried to get jobs with the Recovery School District were told they’d have to take a proficiency test despite the fact that they were already certified and experienced, Ms Harper Royal said. At the same time, positions were being taken by inexperienced Teach for America teachers, who didn’t have to take a test, and were even given incentives to work in New Orleans. Teach for America teachers nicknamed “amateur teachers” by Ms Harper Royal’s own son who is a charter school student are recent college graduates, whose degree may be in business or finance or history, but who teach some of New Orleans’ most challenging children. Some schools have more than 80 per cent of their teacher staff from Teach for America, Ms Harper Royal said.

“You don’t have to have a degree in education to teach in charter schools. I always find that very interesting,” she said.

“Would you want a doctor who doesn’t have a degree in medicine to perform surgery on you? Would you want an attorney who doesn’t have a degree in law to file a lawsuit for you? Teaching is a profession. Why would we want people who don’t have a degree in education to teach our children?”

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