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The last public school

[This editorial originally appeared in the June 5 issue of the New York Teacher.]

This June, New Orleans’ Recovery School District closed its last five traditional public schools, making it the first all-charter school district in the country.

Some observers call the all-charter district a grand urban experiment. We see the unfettered, underregulated expansion of charters as a threat to children’s education and to democracy.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the state took over 102 of New Orleans’ 117 schools. More than 7,000 teachers and other school employees were booted out. Charter operators were invited in.

Charter boosters in New Orleans point to higher state test scores and graduation rates than before Katrina. But such comparisons are questionable because many families and students who lived in the city prior to the storm have left.

Other trends are clearer. A 2010 study by the University of Minnesota Law School found that while New Orleans remains a majority African-American city, 80 percent of its white students attend the most selective, higher-performing charter schools while children of color and lower economic status attend lower-ranked schools.

Similarly, advocates for students with disabilities say children with special needs are routinely denied equal access to educational opportunities and are often pushed out of New Orleans’ charter schools.

A similar lack of fairness can be found in the treatment of educators. While most of the fired teachers were African-American, many of the new recruits are white. The fired educators sued for unfair termination and won.

Unequal treatment can thrive more easily in a district of privately run, though publicly funded, charter schools. The privatization and decentralization of New Orleans schools have led to both a loss of community control and a diminished sense of community as neighborhood schools disappear.

At a time when public education is under attack, New Orleans should remind us that public schools offer both an equality of access and a sense of community essential to our diverse democracy.

“Public education isn’t important because it serves the public,” the late cultural critic Neil Postman said. “It is important because it creates the public.”

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