How Do We Improve Public Schools?

Take Away Their Funding, Terrorize Teachers, and Send Kids Somewhere Else (According to lawmakers)

How can we improve public education for our children?

The answers to this question — and the perspectives on the current quality of public education in the United States — are as varied and individualized as the 55 million students who attend public school in this country. Recently, legislators in Louisiana, like their counterparts in many other states, have sought to improve their state’s educational climate. They have good reason for doing so — in its annual Kids COUNT ratings, meant to evaluate quality of life for children in each state and based on measurements that include educational indices, the Annie E. Casey Foundation consistently ranks Louisiana as 49th (thank you, Mississippi).

As a public-school teacher in Louisiana, I can think of many ways to improve public schools here, and I heard the same sentiments voiced by fellow teachers during a rally outside the Capitol in Baton Rouge as the legislation was being debated last week (April 4). It seems self-evident that one of the best ways to improve public education would be to allocate more resources for public schools — to improve technology, to expand professional-development opportunities for teachers, to buy classroom supplies, up-to-date textbooks and all the other materials that come with a good education. Perhaps one of the best ways to improve public education would be to loosen the strictures that tie student and school evaluations to test preparation and instead to allow teachers to instruct students in the sort of project-based units supported by educational research and the sort of critical-thinking skills that cannot be measured by filling in bubbles — the sort of academic freedom that is praised in charter schools but restricted in traditional public schools.

Perhaps most importantly, one of the best ways to improve public education would be to work to alleviate those factors beyond teachers’ control that affect students’ ability to learn. They are some of the same factors that lead to Louisiana’s dismal Kids COUNT rating — unemployment, poverty, violence, crime rates, family instability, childhood hunger, access to health care.

No, no, and no, according to the politicians. What do teachers know about education, anyway? Public-school teachers, according to most of the Senate members who testified, are obviously part of the problem, not the solution, so it’s better to follow non-educators’ recommendations when improving schools. The philosophies behind the legislation passed last week echo the pro-charter, pro-private philosophies of distinctly non-local figures as diverse as the anti-union former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee (who now finds her former district embroiled in a cheating scandal), the deep-pocket GOP puppetmasters the Koch Brothers and, most significantly, the American Legislative Exchange Council.(ALEC, a conservative think tank that prizes small government and free markets, hosts large meetings at which it gives politicians dummy legislation that they can personalize and file in their home states; its influence is clear in some of Louisiana’s education bills.) Similar legislation has been proposed in other states across the country, particularly in legislatures that, like Louisiana’s, are overwhelmingly Republican, and teachers and others with an interest in public education would do well to pay attention to what’s going on here. According to the experts in Baton Rouge, the following principles underscore our best hopes for improvement:

– Charter schools are always better than traditional public schools, no matter what the data says.

Charter schools, which receive public funding but are generally given wide academic freedom, are lauded as an end-run around the stifling bureaucratic regulations that can hamper traditional public schools. Why other public schools are not permitted to escape the regulatory morass has never been clear, and the new legislation does nothing to clarify the situation while handing over to charters some of the funding that had been reserved for public schools.

In fact, the success of charters is anything but proven. A Stanford University study found that being enrolled in a charter school was a “negative and significant” indicator for poor test scores in reading and math for Louisiana students living in poverty. Charter schools in New Orleans, a city that has come to be viewed as a model charter incubator in the years since Hurricane Katrina, have come under fire for underenrolling and underserving students with special needs. Four years ago, one of the most lauded new charters in New Orleans was Sojourner Truth Academy, a school based around twin ideals of social justice and academic achievement that was founded by Channa Cook, an optimistic young educator from California who was lauded by NPR and The Christian Science Monitor, among others. Apparently, the praise was a little premature. In November, the school’s board announced that due to low test scores, it would close after this year, and last week, the Times-Picayune reported that the school’s accounting practice was being questioned. Cook left last summer, not even sticking around long enough to see her school’s first (and only) graduates finish their high-school careers.

Some of the biggest cynics of charter schools at the Capitol rally were a group of public-school students from New Orleans. Their school, John McDonogh High School, is being converted to a charter next year.

“They promised us fifty percent of our teachers back for next year, but they only hired three of them,” said Erick Dillard, the student-body-president. “We’re trying to fight for our teachers.”

Students held a rally, after which the charter directors met with them alone, barring faculty from the room, Dillard said. The students said in the meeting, the directors told them the school would have a lot more resources as a charter, including iPads for students.

“It seemed like a bribe,” Dillard said.

“Fancy technology,” said Qwame Robertson, a sophomore.

Steve Barr, the school’s new director, who recently broke with the national charter network he founded, told a Times-Picayune reporter that he is recruiting teachers from New York and Washington for next year, not local teachers. He also opined that the main problem at John McDonogh is that students are bored — notwithstanding the fact that the school’s reputation still suffers from it having been the site of a shooting in 2003, or that a teenager accused of killing a Good Samaritan who tried to stop a carjacking was arrested at the school in January.

Dillard disagreed that he and his classmates are bored, or that their teachers are not good enough.

“I feel the reason why the charters do so well is that charters finally give low-funded public schools the things they’ve been needing, like new technology and new textbooks,” he said.

– In fact, charter schools are so good that they do not need state oversight;  again, despite what the data says, and they can bring in money for their parent organizations.

Despite a state audit that found lax oversight for charter schools less than a year ago, lawmakers have decided that rather than require charters to be directly approved by the state or by local school boards, the state should appoint local agencies and nonprofit groups as “local charter authorizers.”  The local authorizers must pledge to approve and oversee (but cannot directly run) at least five charter schools. For their trouble, local chartering boards can charge their schools up to 2% of the $5,053 annual state per-pupil allocation — about $100 per child per year, which, for a chartering board with five schools of 500 students each, would amount to a quarter of a million dollars.

– Private schools are also always better than public schools — no proof is needed.

They just are, okay? Yes, technically, there is no evidence for this assertion, if by “evidence” we mean the incontrovertible “evidence” of state standardized-test scores that politicians assert are essential in evaluating public schools and public-school teachers–multiple-choice tests, of course, being the very best way to measure all students’ achievements. If private schools accept voucher students (more on that in a moment), they will to be held to some sort of accountability standard, but the legislation is murky as to the details. And, yeah, private-school teachers don’t have to be certified. But they have such cute uniforms! And they pray every day. We should just trust them, you know?

– The way to improve public schools is to give them less money, while giving more money to charters and private schools.

Under current law, charters are financed by the state Department of Education from funds created for that purpose. Similarly, a pilot private-school voucher program for children in New Orleans was financed from the state’s general fund. Echoing some parts of a dummy bill from ALEC, the new legislation expands the voucher program statewide for children whose schools score “F,” “D” or “C” under the state’s new letter-rating system and declares that for students with vouchers or for students who attend charters, the per-pupil allocation that would normally follow a child to his or her home public school will now be taken from that school and given directly to the school the child attends. If just eight students left a school, taking their $5,053-per-student state allocations with them, that school would lose the equivalent of the salary of one first-year teacher — a teacher who could have been employed to teach 20 other children.

– Private schools deserve our tax dollars.

The new voucher program uses tax dollars to pay tuition at private schools — schools that, in Louisiana, are generally religious. The contributions will likely be welcome at some New Orleans parochial schools, given that the archdiocese is warning parishioners about a rise in tuition because it is running low on money. It’s a win-win!

– The way to help teachers become better teachers is to keep them perpetually in fear for their jobs.

One of the things that the legislation does is eliminate the possibility of teachers ever being considered permanent employees. Teachers must be rated “highly effective” for five out of every six years. If a teacher is ever rated “ineffective,” the teacher must improve by the following year, and if she again fails to attain a rating of “highly effective,” she will be terminated. The actual criteria for being rated “highly effective” by the state have not been released, although they will go into effect in August; we do know that they will be tied to students’ standardized-test scores.

This philosophy probably makes a lot of sense to people who have never taught in a public-school classroom, but teachers know that there are so many other factors that affect a student’s success that, while all teachers obviously strive to help their students learn, sometimes their test scores still fall short of a targets. A few years ago, a remedial sophomore whom I had been working with for two years bombed his Graduation Exit Exam. I asked him what went wrong. He said, “Well, I figured I wasn’t going to do well on it, so I decided I wouldn’t even try.” Theoretically, if this student — who passed the GEE on his next try and graduated in good academic standing a year early, despite his efforts to drop out –failed this test two years from now, his bad day could have cost me my job.

– All teachers are created equal, but some are more equal than others.

Teachers’ salaries will now be determined by a locally calculated formula based on student test scores, experience, and demand for the teacher’s subject. This means that, theoretically, teachers in content areas that tend to attract large numbers of aspiring educators, such as my subject, English, can be deemed less valuable than rarer educators such as, for instance, science teachers — and, accordingly, can be paid less. That makes sense; students need to be able to do science experiments, not read about scientific theories or write lab reports, right?

– Anyone can step into a classroom and be a good teacher; no special training is required.

Under current state law, all public-school teachers must be either fully certified or enrolled in a post-baccalaureate certification program, and 75 percent of charter-school teachers must be certified. The legislation passed last week removes that quota for charter schools; now, potential charter teachers merely need to hold a bachelor’s degree to get hired. The state’s overall pro-charter climate, and the new “flexibility” in certification for charter staff, would seem to imply that state officials believe that teacher certification is of little value, although officials haven’t actually come out and said so — at least, not yet.

This turn of events is not entirely surprising in a state whose top education official, Superintendent John White, spent just two years as a classroom teacher and holds no degrees in education. (Like Channa Cook, White hops jobs quickly. Prior to being named state superintendent, he was the superintendent of New Orleans’s Recovery School District — for all of seven months.)

Some public-school teachers have proposed that, if lawmakers believe teacher training to be unnecessary, they could come substitute for a day in our schools and experience the joy of instantly being excellent educators. Strangely, as far as I can tell, none of them have taken us up on our offer.

– Students don’t actually need in-person teachers, they need virtual ones — and the virtual ones need our tax money.

In a move that ALEC will surely applaud, the legislation also addresses “course providers,” instructors for online and virtual courses. These course providers can be teachers; they can also include colleges and business entities. Using allocations from the funding formula that calculates the allocation per pupil to the local school district, the state will pay course providers to educate not only public-school students but also private-school and home-schooled pupils (a la Rick Santorum). The state plans to create a course catalog of all classes offered by approved course providers, and all public schools will be required to include these class listings in their own course catalogs. Course providers will receive 1/6 of 90 percent of a district’s per-pupil allocation, or about $758, per student per course. At that rate, a course provider who ended up carrying a student load of 90, which is near the upper limits for teachers at schools with block schedules, could earn as much as $68,000 per semester, nearly $30,000 more than the annual salary for a beginning teacher. A course provider who amassed 150 students, the equivalent of a full student load at a traditional-schedule high school, could make nearly $114,000.

– However, in-person teachers must be held responsible for their students’ achievement in online classes.

The legislation states that, via their school-performance score, brick-and-mortar public schools will be graded on their students’ performance in virtual classes — even though those classes will not be taught by educators from the school, and even though those educators might not even be certified. This is bad news for the host schools, considering that a study by Stanford University found that students in virtual schools in Pennsylvania, one of the first states to allow widespread cyber-school enrollment, scored far below students at public schools. Ultimately, a public school could be labeled as a failing school and face sanctions if its students do not perform well in privately administered classes taught by people with no educational credentials who have never even met their pupils.

– All children are welcome at private schools — unless they have special-education needs.

Special education requires extra money for extra staff, extra professional development for those staff members, extra software, and extra materials. The expenses of special education, paired with the fact that students who receive special-education services are usually identified as having a learning difference only after struggling academically, are the main reasons that many private schools offer limited special-education services. Under the new legislation, a parent or guardian of a child with special needs who enrolls the child in private school using a voucher will have to sign a release form agreeing that the child will receive only the special-education services that the private school offers — which are likely to be far less comprehensive than special-education services at public schools.

Because private schools participating in the voucher program must accept all voucher candidates, refusing special-education services could arise as a strategy that private schools use to exclude students with special needs without technically breaking the law.

Some private schools already use special-education status as a reason to exclude kids. Last semester, a senior in my college-bound English class who has dyslexia wrote of her disappointment as an eighth-grader when she could not get into one of New Orleans’s Catholic schools. “They didn’t want me because of my learning problems,” she said. This student, one of the most determined people I have ever met, will graduate with honors next month. I told her that the private school had certainly lost out by not admitting her — but I felt honored to have her in my classroom.

– All children are welcome at charter schools — unless they’re gay (or English language learners, or not good at sports).

In 2011, Louisiana passed a bill that allowed for-profit corporations to propose and operate charter schools; the businesses are allowed to control half of their schools’ board seats and half of the enrollment slots. Now, legislators are using the connection of business with charter schools to try to allow legalization of discrimination. The Department of Education’s regulations state that “charters may not discriminate based on race, color, national origin, creed, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, age, ancestry, athletic performance, special-need proficiency in the English language or in a foreign language, or academic achievement in admitting students.” SB 217, which is awaiting action in the Senate, seeks to restrict the anti-discrimination clause solely to race, religion, national ancestry, age, sex or disability, the only categories protected against discrimination as it relates to business deals in the state. In a committee hearing, which was covered by a reporter for Baton Rouge’s newspaper, The Advocate, a woman from New Orleans said she refused to run a charter school.because she would not be able to bar students based on their sexual orientation

Given that GLBTQ students have reported bullying rates of nearly 9 in 10, and given that studies have indicated that GLBTQ teens can be as much as four times as likely to attempt suicide compared with their straight peers, using legislation such as SB 217 to exclude them isn’t just cruel — it amounts to child endangerment. The Advocate article also quoted the leader of the Louisiana Family Forum, a group whose stated mission is promoting “faith, freedom, and the traditional family in the great state of Louisiana,” as saying that the legislation was meant to send a message to Gov. Bobby Jindal, a conservative Republican who appears in a video endorsement on the group’s website. In an e-mail to the article’s reporter, Mark Ballard, Jindal’s press secretary said, “We don’t believe in special protections or rights.”

The bill cleared committee by a vote of 5-1 and is expected to pass in both chambers.

–  By the way, all of this is totally legal — unless it’s not.

The authors of House Bill 976, the bill dealing with charters and vouchers, appear to be worried about whether they might be breaking the law. They were concerned enough about the constitutionality of certain bill provisions (perhaps all of them) that they included a clause at the end of the bill stating that if some component of the legislation were found unconstitutional, it didn’t mean that all of the legislation was unconstitutional. Hmmmm.

So that’s how to fix public schools, at least according to Louisiana’s legislators. Evidently, as a public-school teacher, I’m part of the problem. Maybe I should just go teach at a charter or a private school. Then I’d instantly be part of the solution, right? I’d automatically be smarter, more dynamic, more engaging. My students would automatically learn more. I might even get a free iPad. Maybe I should be a “course provider” so I can sit on my couch all day and teach online. I could double my salary, and I’d never have to write another discipline report.

Except. I’m not ready to give up on public schools, and I don’t think my colleagues are either. I’m a proud public school graduate who went on to succeed at a prestigious college. I believe that the education that can be received in public schools is the heart of the American dream. I believe that instead of starving those schools, we should work to improve them. I believe in schools that open their doors to every child, with no exceptions. I believe that schools that restrict admission, either overtly or covertly, to any students send the message that some people just aren’t welcome in the world. I do not want to live in a world like that.

And honestly, I don’t think that I’m doing such a bad job. My students are, on the whole, succeeding in my courses. Those who have graduated are now succeeding in college. Alan Rocha, a 2011 graduate of the school where I teach, and a current student at the University of New Orleans, drove from the city to attend the rally. After observing for a while, he approached the microphone and asked to speak. This was his message:

I am here for my teachers, who gave me an education that I would not trade for any charter or private school. I value the education they gave me. I am here for my sister that is currently in school, and I do not want to see her education ruined, because I am a proud public-school graduate. I am not a failure. My sister is not a failure. My teachers are not failures. Do not think of our youth as failures, because we’re not. That’s all I have to say.

Elizabeth Walters, a former newspaper reporter, is a a journalist and a teacher at Chalmette High School in St. Bernard Parish, La. Read other articles by Elizabeth.