FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Charter Schools: Why Can’t Republicans Make This Issue A Winner?
Charter schools work – on so many levels. Charter schools educate kids. Charter schools promote local control and parental involvement. Charter schools succeed in stark contrast to the failed policies of the NEA and the Department of Education.
New Orleans’ corrupt, decrepit Orleans Parish School Board was mortally wounded before Katrina. The State-run Recovery School District had started to take over failed Orleans Parish schools, and the charter movement had a toe-hold.
Katrina wiped the slate clean. Charter schools led the comeback. Now, fully half of Orleans Parish’s public schools are charter schools, a higher percentage than any other city in the nation.
The conservative solution is demonstrably the better solution. And it doesn’t take a generation to prove it.
Republicans do a lot of hand wringing, trying to figure out how to make the Republican Party and conservative governance relevant to the minority community. (This is New Orleans, remember, and the public school system is 95% African-American.) Charter schools are a way to do it without pandering. People will notice when their children achieve in school. And rather than wasting taxpayer dollars, it just makes sense to spend it raising a more educated and more employable voter.
Sophie B. Wright Middle School was a typical Orleans Parish public school. It had failed utterly, to the point that the School Board was considering closing it and using the physical plant as an alternative high school.
But instead, in 2005, the school became Spohie B. Wright Charter School, headed by Principal Sharon Clark.
In many respects, Wright’s dramatic improvement since it became a charter — it now ranks among the city’s most promising public schools without admissions requirements — illustrates the charter model’s greatest strengths.
The middle school, which this fall added a high school program, earned local and national acclaim in 2008 when every single fourth-grader passed the high-stakes LEAP exam. This fall it narrowly missed earning recognition as a “two-star” school, a still-elite but growing group of open-enrollment charters in the city. [By contrast, two-thirds to three-quarters of the students in some schools fail the LEAP -- all the more remarkable because of Wright's non-selective admissions. - ed.]
With no district bureaucracy to support it — or meddle in its affairs — Clark and her staff have unprecedented control over Wright, and no one to blame but themselves for failures. Charter schools receive public money, but independent boards run them, and make nearly all the decisions about staffing, curriculum and schedules.
At Wright, the board usually supports Clark’s decisions wholeheartedly. So on a dime, school leaders can decide to add a new math class for struggling students, decide to buy its own buses and run transportation in house, dismiss low-performing teachers (what Clark calls “freeing up their futures”), or hire an impressive salesman at Office Depot to be the school’s administrative assistant — all of which Clark has done.
Clark, a New Orleans native, returned from Arizona to her hometown in 2001 and took the helm of the then-notorious Sophie B. Wright campus on Napoleon Avenue, one of dozens of failing schools run by the Orleans Parish School Board. From day one, Clark made it clear that old habits should die quickly.
“They say you’re not smart, that you’re not working on grade level! That you’re failing! Stand up if you think you’re failing! Stand up!” Wright barked at students during her first fall at Wright.
“Stand up if you’re big and bad and bold and you’re going to come here late every day. Stand up!… You’re not going to tell me you’re getting a free education and you’re not going to come to school? Free books, free buildings, free everything!”
The fundamental flaw of the old governance structure may have been that, because of bureaucracy, inconsistent leadership and politics, school leaders weren’t empowered to make decisions they felt were in the best interest of kids.