New Orleans’ All-Charter School System Is Struggling, But Bobby Jindal Wants It To Be A Model

Some critics say new teachers’ exams are filtering out teachers of color at a time when teachers are still overwhelmingly white. CREDIT: AP/CHERYL GERBER
Some critics say new teachers’ exams are filtering out teachers of color at a time when teachers are still overwhelmingly white. CREDIT: AP/CHERYL GERBER

Louisiana Governor and likely presidential candidate Bobby Jindal (R) released his new “roadmap” for reforming K-12 education Monday morning, focusing on the importance of deregulating and privatizing public schools and holding up New Orleans’ all-charter Recovery School District as a model for the nation.

“I’m proud we’ve increased the number of charter schools, nearly doubling them,” Jindal told an audience on Capitol Hill. “I get so frustrated when people tell us to wait for incremental gains. We have seen remarkable gains.”

But new data calls the supposed gains into question. Most of the class of 2014 graduating from the 100%-charter New Orleans Recovery School District scored so low on the national ACT test that they didn’t meet the minimum requirements for Louisiana’s colleges.

According to numbers crunched by Louisiana public school teacher and doctor of statistics Mercedes Schneider, just over 6 percent of high school seniors in the Recovery School District scored high enough in English and Math to qualify for admission into a Louisiana four-year college or university straight out of high school. Five of the district’s 16 high schools produced not a single student who met these requirements.

The district’s test scores were extremely low prior to Hurricane Katrina and the charter school conversion, but despite Jindal’s claims of “remarkable gains,” there has been only a 2 point improvement in New Orleans’ Recovery School District ACT scores since 2005. The class average is now 16.4, one of the lowest in Louisiana. There was a 0.6 decline statewide.

The minimum requirement for a scholarship to a two-year Louisiana college is 17, while a high school graduate must score a 20 to be eligible for a four-year college scholarship. The number of Recovery district students who qualify has increased since the charter takeover, but remains in the low teens.

Besides the rapid conversion from public to charter schools, Jindal also touted his controversial voucher program, which steers taxpayer dollars to private, religious and even for-profit online schools.

“The single most important thing we did was to let the dollars follow the kids instead of the other way around,” he said on Capitol Hill Monday morning. “Instead of having a ‘one size fits all’ approach, we should accept that every child is different and the people who know best are the moms and dads.”

In 2013, the Justice Department took Jindal’s voucher program to court, arguing that it was making racial segregation worse in the state’s schools. In 2014, a judge ruled to allow the program to continue, but the federal government is closely monitoring its impact on segregation and could sue again in the future.  Others have raised concerns about the quality of education at the private schools receiving voucher-funded pupils. A Mother Jones investigation revealed that some Louisiana schools were teaching that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together, that the KKK did helpful community organizing, and that dragons were real. Others used textbooks that characterized 1960s anti-war protesters thusly: “They went without bathing, wore dirty, ragged, unconventional clothing, and deliberately broke all codes of politeness or manners.”

Additionally, in the text of his plan, Jindal acknowledges that the rapid change was only possible after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city and its schools. “New Orleans’ educational transformation has its roots in a great human tragedy,” he writes. “But the result has been a system of choice that emphasizes the quality of the education a child receives.”

Some have held this up as a prime example of disaster capitalism, or the Shock Doctrine, a system by which officials take advantage of a crisis or natural disaster to push through unpopular economic reforms. Just a few months after Hurricane Katrina drowned much of New Orleans, conservative economist Milton Friedman argued in the Wall Street Journal that the tragedy was “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system,” writing that Louisiana’s lawmakers “should make clear that the vouchers are not an emergency expedient that will be terminated once the emergency is over, but are a permanent reform.”

Over the past few months, Jindal has been giving speeches in DC and key primary states touting the importance of education at the same time he seeks hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to his own state’s education budget. He writes in his new reform plan: “New Orleans serves as an instructive example.” Those protesting school closings, low test scores and racial segregation in the Crescent City will likely agree.