L.A. is the biggest U.S. school district with an elected school board. (The biggest district, New York City, and third-biggest, Chicago, are both governed by mayoral appointees.)Right leaning capitalist megadonors have been pouring more money into local politics, and particularly into local school board races across the country at record levels. And the money has had a tangible impact on policy formation.
Year after year, its school board elections have broken spending records. Corporate education reformers spent $13 million in the last election, most of it coming from the foundations of the Walton family (the owners of Walmart) and Eli Broad, two of the biggest spenders nationally in support of charter schools, vouchers, and privatization.
That money was enough to win them a majority of the seats on the school board. And after the previous superintendent resigned early last year for health reasons, that majority handpicked a superintendent, Beutner.
But as it turned out, a bought and paid for board and superintendent weren’t as powerful as a good old-fashioned strike.
In 2016, the Orleans Parish School Board election was of major consequence. This would be the board to take full control of the schools back from the state and choose a new superintendent. Everyone was aware going in that major policy choices were on the table at this time. It was the perfect moment to have a public debate about the effects of charterizaton and put it to voters to determine the philosophy going forward.
But, strangely, very few people stepped up to run for the board that year. In fact, four of the seven seats were uncontested. People in New Orleans care a great deal about the school system. Why so little energy behind these crucial elections? Well, huge piles of money have a way of squashing grass roots campaigns.
But Karran Harper Royal, an education activist who ran against Usdin and lost in 2012, said critics of Usdin, at least, might have been scared off by her fundraising muscle. Along with Jacobs, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Netflix founder Reed Hastings and former Time magazine editor and author Walter Isaacson were among a lengthy list of contributors to Usdin’s unprecedented $150,000 campaign haul four years ago.This is how oligarchic systems run, unfortunately. The billionaires just need to push a few buttons and they set the parameters of accepted policy debate in public forums all across the country. It takes a lot of organizing and base building work to overcome that. It has taken the teachers a very long time to get to where they are now. And, keep in mind, where they are is they're still badly outgunned. But they're starting to make their case. The charter movement is an attack on the very notion of education as a public good.
Royal raised close to $13,000.
“Those folks who were in power, the charter school movement, they have lined their ducks up in a row,” said Royal, who has been critical of charters. “For the everyday person, that’s an insurmountable hill to climb, particularly because of the amount of money in the race.”
Latona teachers I spoke with described competition from surrounding charter schools as an existential threat to their school and an undermining influence on the public system."School choice" is really about offering those with means to navigate the choices, a chance to opt into a higher tier all the while bleeding resources away from those left behind. It is an institutional reification of privileges a true public education system should be working to level out. The billionaires have spent a lot of money trying to convince people to buy in to a school system that is segregated by design.
“Charter schools are popping up everywhere and siphoning money and taking away students from our public school,” said King.
“I’ve had a lot of friends teach at charters,” said Linda Butala, an English language and Title I coordinator. “These schools often mean well. But charters have become another level of haves and have-nots in our system.”
The “haves” these teachers referred to are the “more savvy” parents who take advantage of what many charters offer, including smaller class sizes and newer resources and technology.
The disparity is especially acute when the charter is co-located on the same campus as an existing public school. Traci Rustin, a second-grade teacher, recalled that at a previous school where she worked, the charter co-located on the campus “had much fewer teachers and students of color.” The charter students had more abundant and newer technology, the school lunches were more nutritious, and the classroom supplies were up-to-date. And when students returned to the public school when the charter “didn’t work out,” the new technology and resources, along with the funding that had left her school, didn’t transfer back.
“In neighborhoods that are more racially homogeneous,” explained Rustin, “you see more well-abled children in the charter. You see a two-tier system going on.”
Teachers and parents in New Orleans may be starting to make their case against privatized education as well. Here is a story about the Hynes Charter school's preferred enrollment "partnership" with UNO. The scheme would bake in a special privilege for families of UNO employees.
"We don't have enough well performing schools that don't have selective admission," Kevin Griffin-Clark said.I keep hearing about this "Erase the Board" movement but I have no idea what kind of reach it has. Maybe we'll find out if they field any OPSB candidates next year.
Kevn Griffin-Clark is a member of "Erase the Board," a group of parents and community members who want the Orleans Parish School Board to run schools directly and not as charters.
"It's a huge travesty where you say that kids-parents have 'school choice,' but there's no choice whatsoever when I'm choosing five failing schools and then there's politicians or someone that works for a University that can just say 'Hey I work here. Get my child in this school,'" Griffin-Clark said.