In 1948, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, “the public school is at once a symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny.”
But these days, with public education becoming more about test scores, we are forced to consider whether it still remains so. A case in point is that of New Orleans, where the charter school education model has routinely excluded the voices of many of the parents and children who are directly affected.
Though many scholars have debated the effects of education reform in New Orleans on educational outcomes, few have examined the impact on democratic decision-making that has always been a central part of public schools.
As a parent, living and raising children in New Orleans, I have witnessed the transformation of the school system and the widespread disdain for voices that are skeptical of the reforms. Also, as a political scientist studying political behavior and public policy, I see these trends through the lens of democratic participation.
School reforms in New Orleans
In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans implemented significant changes to its education system.
The vast majority of schools were deemed “failing” (even if they earned a C on the state’s letter grade formula) and were taken over by the state-run Recovery School District. All teachers were fired. Except for a few, all schools became charter schools, and default neighborhood school zones were eliminated. Parents now have to actively choose a school for their children.
Advocates argue that the expansion of school choice enhances democracy by engaging parents who must learn to actively choose for their child. For example, at a recent public discussion of New Orleans parent perspectives, one mother stated that the new system had forced her to learn more about the schools and to become more engaged.
Others contend, however, that contemporary reforms have made parents anxious and have excluded them from real decision-making. Indeed, some parents in New Orleans have expressed great frustration and anxiety about school choice programs.
Who gets heard
In Democracy and Its Critics, esteemed political scientist Robert Dahl developed criteria for an ideal democracy, all of which point to the centrality of political equality. In other words, in a democracy, everyone ought to have an equal voice in the important decisions.
To examine how the democratic process functions in New Orleans schools, 22 Tulane students in my class collected data and wrote five policy briefs that can assess the degree to which the New Orleans education model embodies Dahl’s ideals. The briefs show clear violations of political equality.
For one, as my students found, campaign contributions to candidates running for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) are skewed heavily toward pro-charter voices.
Nearly 10% of the total amount raised from individual contributions in each of the most recent BESE and OPSB elections came from just one family. Further, several of the winning candidates received over a third of their donations from outside the state of Louisiana. And most of the largest donors, such as Michael Bloomberg, were from outside the state.
So, a small number of voices – in this case staunch pro-charter advocates – outweigh those who are directly affected.
Governance and democratic process
Beyond the elected boards, democratic participation is far from equal on the nonelected charter school boards that make most school-based decisions. My students’ research into charter boards demonstrates that these boards are not representative of the school population.
Some charter schools are part of national networks, such as KIPP, while others stand alone. In a school district where about 90% of students are African American, less than 20% of members of non-network charter boards and 25% of members of network charter boards are black.
Further, in violation of state laws, information about charter board members, meetings and board vacancies is very difficult to find. In the absence of even this basic information, there is no means for the public to effectively participate.
Even marketing tools, such as advertisements, are strategically targeted at particular audiences, leading to unequal opportunities for parents to learn about their choices. For example, predominantly black schools place television and radio ads only on stations whose audience is primarily African American, while more diverse schools, such as the International High School, advertise on jazz stations with a broad audience. There is then a risk for schools to exclude particular students.
Indeed, a recent report shows that local principals rely on branding and marketing, including choosing not to advertise in order to limit the types of students who enroll.
Those who are selected out tend to be the students who are harder and more expensive to educate, such as those with a history of behavioral problems and special needs.
Choice as manipulation?
In spite of these findings, polls indicate widespread support. Nearly 70% of New Orleans residents believe that charter schools have improved education in the city. If the people did not believe their interests were represented or that the system was fair, why would they support this model?
One theory suggests that power is exercised not only through the expression of preferences or even control of the agenda, but also through the covert manipulation of interests such that people may even act against their own will.
The relentless focus on “choice” represents a perfect example of this manipulation.
Reformers contend that expanding choice enhances democracy and levels the playing field for disadvantaged children. Because Americans believe more choices are better than fewer, it is hardly surprising to see that New Orleanians support school choice in spite of unequal access to power.
Because they are told that their child’s future lies solely in their hands – and is not the responsibility of the government or society – parents may be preoccupied with their choices and ignore the fact that a small minority of affluent individuals exercise enormous influence on the real education power brokers.
By focusing on choice, people may miss the fact that they have almost no control over the boards that make most school-based decisions.
The pressure to collect information to make the best choices for their own children may mean that parents see their experiences as unique and to overlook the systemic problems with decentralization.
What New Orleans must address
Of late, reforms have addressed inequalities in the enrollment process and discipline, but there has been no move to open up decision-making to include a broader set of voices.
For example, studies have shown that there is widespread agreement that entrance into the few top-performing schools is unfair. These schools use admissions tests and required parent meetings to exclude all but the highest achievers. To protect their interests, they exercise significant pushback against any move to change the selective admissions system.
If public schools are to exemplify democracy and produce tomorrow’s democrats, New Orleans must deal with the lack of political equality in its current system.