At a recent school board meeting in New Orleans, more than 100 parents swamped the hearing room, requiring dozens to have to stand. Many of the parents had filled out public comment cards so they would be allowed to address the board.
What most in the crowd came prepared to talk about were their concerns about recent recommendations by the superintendent to close five schools and transfer the students to other schools in the district. Their demand was for the elected board to take a more hands-on role in improving the schools instead of closing them down.
But when Ashana Bigard, a New Orleans public school parent and advocate, realized the board had altered the agenda, and limited parents’ comment time, she decided to speak out of turn.
“How is closing the schools helping our children?” she asked the board members. She pointed out that many of the children in the schools being closed are special needs students with serious, trauma-induced learning disabilities, and now these children are being uprooted and transferred to schools that lack expertise with these problems. “These children have been experimented on for too long,” she declared.
That’s when a district staff member intervened and escorted her out of the room.
A Demand for Real Democracy
Parents’ protesting a school closing is nothing new. But for parents to demand that their local board take more control of the school, and run it directly rather than closing it down, is a twist. That’s because this is New Orleans.
In the bizarre landscape of New Orleans schools, since they were taken over by the state and reorganized after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, all but two of the 79 schools are directed by charter management companies, privately owned contractors that receive taxpayer money to run the schools. The charter management firms have near-complete autonomy, and while the Orleans Parish School Board was recently given the power, by the state, to open and close charters, the day-to-day operations of the schools are still handled by the charters’ appointed boards, generally free from any demands from parents and voters.
It’s that arrangement that is at the heart of these parents’ complaints.
With the elected board’s powers being limited to decisions on opening and closing schools only, “Parents feel they have no voice in the system,” Bigard explains in a phone conversation, and charter operators have way too much power and autonomy to allow school conditions to worsen to the level that closure becomes the only option.
“We need to have our elected board hold charter schools more accountable” for their day-to-day operation, she says. That would mean having the elected board impose the demands of parents and voters on charter management companies and assert more authority on how charters are run.
A more assertive board, Bigard argues, could impose much-needed reforms on the charters rather than closing them down or handing the schools over to a different management company—that will likely do no better than the last one did.
“Parents want real voice and real democracy,” she says.
An American Tradition Undermined
What Bigard and other New Orleans parents are demanding has been the tradition in American communities, where local schools have long been governed by democratically elected boards.
But that American tradition has been undermined or overturned, especially in communities of color, where less democratic forms of governance have become widespread.
For decades, a wave of state takeovers of school districts overseeing tens of thousands of students has stripped elected school boards in these communities of their governing power and denied voters the right to local governance of their public schools. These state takeovers have been happening almost exclusively in African American and Latinx school districts—many of the same communities that have experienced decades of economic decline, high unemployment, and underinvestment in schools.
What tends to accompany these state interventions are mass closing of public schools and the imposition of various forms of privately controlled school models, such as charter schools.
All About Politics, Not Education
Since 1989, there have been more than 100 takeovers of local school districts in the United States, according to Domingo Morel, author of the book Takeover: Race, Education and American Democracy.
In nearly 85 percent of these cases, the districts have been majority African American and Latinx. Also, black communities disproportionately experience the most punitive forms of takeovers, in which elected school boards are disbanded or turned into “advisory” boards, school superintendents previously hired by elected boards have been fired, or governing authority has been handed over to state-appointed managers or private management companies.
Although the takeovers are usually justified for academic reasons, Morel points to research showing takeovers generally do not have a significant effect on school improvement. Instead, what really motivates takeovers, according to Morel, is politics—especially the political undermining of black and brown governance of schools in urban communities.
Morel traces the rising popularity of takeovers to the 1970s and early 80s, when blacks in big cities across the country gained majorities on city councils and school boards. He argues that the power of the rising black electorate created political problems for conservative leaders in state government who did not want to see governance in large urban communities fall into the hands of local lawmakers who were from the opposition.
That political dynamic was at work especially in New Jersey, where, in 1988, state lawmakers passed the first law allowing the state board of education to take control of local school district governance. Two of the state’s largest school districts, Jersey City and Newark, were the first to draw the attention of Republican governors, and those two districts were taken over by the state in 1989 and 1995, respectively.
But while state takeovers have been mostly about politics, in more recent years, another factor strongly motivates these interventions: public school privatization.
A Push for Privatization
“State takeovers and the elimination of locally elected school boards grease the rails of privatization by charter school management groups,” Jitu Brown tells me.
Brown is the national director of Journey for Justice, an alliance of grassroots community-, youth-, and parent-led organizations in 24 cities that oppose privatizing schools and advocate for community-based alternatives instead.
In 2016, Brown and 11 other public school advocates in Chicago made headlines when they staged a hunger strike to protest the closing of Dyett High School. Their demand was to reopen the school as a full-service community school focused on a green energy curriculum. After 34 days of the strike, the district administration relented and reopened Dyett in 2016, as a school for the arts, after $14.6 million in refurbishing.
Brown attributes much of the growth of charter schools to the federal government, especially during the presidential administration of Barack Obama, whose Education Secretary Arne Duncan incentivized privatization through a School Improvement Grants program. The grants required struggling schools in the most vulnerable communities to undergo turnaround efforts that often included handing control of schools over to charter management firms or closing schools and reopening them as charters.
The Obama administration and Secretary Duncan also incentivized charter school expansions through the federal government’s Race to the Top program and through its charter school grant program.
At the same time the federal government was incentivizing charter school expansions, there was a powerful and well-financed movement to eliminate traditional urban school districts and their democratically elected school boards. Funded by right-wing political advocacy groups, influential private foundations, and tech moguls from Silicon Valley, the movement decried the “chaos” of democratically elected school boards and advocated instead for an “open market” where parents take their chances on loosely regulated charter schools.
The push for privatization has been particularly consequential in urban communities of color such as Newark, New Jersey. “Since 2008, the share of students who attend charters in Newark has nearly quadrupled—from 9 percent in 2008 to about 35 percent today,” Chalkbeat reports. “By 2023, that number could swell to 44 percent, according to one estimate, as the city’s charters continue to fill seats that were preapproved by the [former Republican Governor Chris] Christie administration.” About a quarter of the district’s budget—$237 million—goes to charter schools, up from $60 million ten years ago.
But state takeovers and the ushering in of charter management “never address the structural inequity in the system,” according to Brown. Regardless of the change in governance, urban schools for black and brown students continue to be plagued with large class sizes, punitive discipline codes, rotating faculties of inexperienced teachers, and curriculums void of advanced courses in world languages, art and music, and higher-level math and science.
With undemocratic governance, the inequity often worsens, Brown argues. Communities like Newark “have had the right to self-determination snatched from them,” he says. “If they don’t have the right to govern their own schools, then people who take the schools over operate the schools based on their opinions of people in the community,” rather than on the desires of parents and voters.
Fighting Back and Winning in New Jersey
However, there are recent signs these communities are fighting back and frequently winning to gradually claw back their local, democratic governance.
In New Orleans, the community had its first victory in July 2018 when Louisiana gave a locally elected school board power to open and close charters. In Philadelphia, 16 years of governance by a state-appointed commission ended in June 2018, and governance power transferred to a local school board appointed by the mayor. And more recently in New Jersey, three districts—Paterson, Newark, and Camden—voted for democratically elected boards and the power to hold local board members accountable at the ballot box.
State takeovers had ended in Newark and Paterson earlier this year, and Camden is still under state control, but when voters in these communities had the opportunity to decide whether they wanted schools to be run by an elected board or a board appointed by the mayor, they voted overwhelmingly for elected boards.
“To have a chance to regain an elected school board in these New Jersey communities and then see voters come out and actually vote for democracy is a testament to the work of grassroots advocacy groups in these communities,” says Brown, pointing to three Journey for Justice member groups—Camden Parent and Student Union, Parents Unified for Local School Education (Newark), and Paterson Education Organizing Committee. “These groups have achieved a strong victory against inequity and privatization,” he says.
“We have to get totally out from under state control,” says Ronsha Dickerson, a leader of the Camden group. “An elected board accountable to the voters will help us unpeel the corruption in the system.”
Addressing “corruption” was supposedly the reason to impose state intervention in Camden schools years ago. But according to Dickerson, as the state’s authority gradually grew in the city, and democratic control ebbed, the conditions in the schools worsened and corruption increased. Each time democracy declined—during mayoral control, under the watch of a state-appointed monitor, then with state takeover—board members and other officials were increasingly more apt to be chosen from a “political establishment,” she says, “all in the spirit of progressive education but really to benefit the establishment.”
The “establishment” Dickerson refers to has been closely aligned with an invasion of Renaissance Schools, a form of privatization in Camden that transfers administration of a public school to a charter management group or allows a charter firm to “co-locate” a school in an existing public-school campus.
After the state takeover, she says, “no one wanted to talk about Camden schools that were doing well before the takeover—even the ‘mom and pop’ [independent] charters that were doing well. No one wanted to talk about how to roll out what was working in these schools to the rest of the community. Instead, the only focus was bringing in more Renaissance Schools.”
The introduction and expansion of Renaissance Schools has deeply divided the community and has resulted in charges that these schools serve far fewer percentages of students who have learning disabilities or who don’t speak English well.
In Newark, state takeover also led to increased corruption according to Johnnie Lattner of Parents Unified for Local School Education. Similar to Camden, he believes the state-appointed board had become accustomed to selecting members who had links to charter schools.
Although he concedes the influence of the charter industry will likely still exist under an elected board, because of the “money and manpower” behind candidates backed by charter advocates, “Elections are the only way they’ll feel the pressure of parents and voters,” he says.
Changing the Conversation About Privatization
The successful efforts to take back local control and democratic governance of schools by grassroots groups like the ones in New Jersey have “changed the conversation about privatization,” according to Brown.
Of course, no one expects democratically elected school boards alone to fully address the challenges that schools in urban black and brown communities face. Research studies on the impact school boards have on student achievement are few and far between and often find the effects have more to do with how the board behaves rather than the process that created it.
But grassroots organizers fending off privatization and fighting for elected school boards understand a democratically elected board is just the beginning in winning back more parent and citizen voice in their districts. They believe their communities have more leverage when they at least have the opportunity to vote inattentive board members out.
“Was the elected school board in New Orleans before Katrina sometimes inattentive to the needs of parents?” asks Bigard. “Sure,” she says, but under state control, the appointed board wasn’t accountable either. Schools no longer had music and art classes and advanced courses in science and math. Charter schools didn’t follow the laws, especially for how to educate students with disabilities. And parents didn’t have anyone to call to complain to.
“At least now that we have a local board with some authority,” Bigard says, “people are more engaged and invested than I’ve ever seen. And we’re ready to demand board members listen to us and step into their power, or we’ll recall any who don’t.”