Dennis Persica: New Orleans at center of charter schools debate

Charter schools have been a hot topic since their very inception.

Supporters say charters bring new leadership to replace the government’s ossified educational bureaucracy. Critics say that in the process, certain protections for students are lost, along with public-school teachers’ job security and benefits.

New Orleans is a petri dish for the national charter school movement because the vast majority of the public schools here are charters. The roots of that process lie with the state takeover of the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina under Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco. The movement accelerated under her Republican successor, Bobby Jindal.

While there are occasional grumblings about charter schools here, it’s nothing like what’s happening in New York and other northern cities.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom conservative critics derisively call “Comrade Bill,” has been accused of waging a war on charter schools. Even Jindal weighed in recently with an opinion piece in the New York Post, accusing de Blasio of a “systematic campaign to destroy” the city’s charter movement.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a de Blasio ally, indicated her perception that there is an economic class basis to the debate by referring to the schools as “hedge fund-backed charters.”

In New Jersey, critics say charter schools have become a landing spot for white students, resulting in a new white flight from traditional public schools. In Philadelphia, the deputy school superintendent warned of financial difficulties for public schools if charters siphon more tax dollars from them.

Charter schools do have supporters among some liberal Democrats, however. De Blasio has found himself at odds with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the issue. And Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former adviser to President Obama, claims his position has more to do with school quality than with whether a school is a charter or not (though he did close 47 neighborhood schools last year).

Although he was a favorite target of Republicans while working in the White House, Emanuel uses their magic word when talking about education.

“My key word is ‘choice,’ ” he said in a television interview last week. That had to be music to the ears of people who support charter schools as well as another hot-button education issue — vouchers for private schools.

In his New York Post column, Jindal said it plainly: “School choice works.”

Jindal also used the column to bash the president because of the U. S. Justice Department’s legal action last year regarding the state’s voucher program. The governor misrepresented what happened, saying the government “seeks to block the program on the grounds that it would lead to racial segregation.”

Actually, the department’s filing said federal judges in districts with ongoing desegregation cases must ensure that vouchers don’t worsen existing segregation.

After the column ran, Mark-Viverito passed along a Twitter message from another user: “Governor Bobby Jindal, leader of the state ranked 49th in education weighs in on NYC’s education debate. Adorable.”

New Orleans’ situation is different from that of other cities because the charters here replaced a tattered school system in a city in ruins. Parents, students and teachers were still scattered across the country while the change was taking place. Elsewhere, however, charters are being introduced into robust public school systems whose defenders are still there and fighting back.

The charter debate in Louisiana has been comparatively calm, but some of the issues being raised up north eventually may trickle down and find their way into the discussion here.

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.