Arkansas is considering a grand education experiment in House Bill 1733 to privatize your public schools. Take it from us in New Orleans and Chicago: The experiment won't work.
The school privatization models imposed on New Orleans and Chicago have many flaws. The chief flaws are the ideas that we have systems built on parent choice and that choice improves student learning. Nothing could be further from the truth.
New Orleans has closed over 20 schools in the Recovery School District over the last five years, displacing over 4,000 children. In Chicago, 50 schools were closed in 2013 to make way for new charters. They took away our neighborhood schools to give us their idea of "school choice."
School closings, huge numbers of charters and other such interventions do not equal choice. Someone chose for us, without our input or OK. Chicago and New Orleans got a wave of privatization instead of investing in community schools that families could count on in their own neighborhoods. We got ideology instead of research-based practices. It made education worse in our communities.
Theoretically parents could send their kids to any school in the city. The reality is we now have to enter a lottery just to have a school for our children anywhere in the city. If we don't get our children into the school of our choice, we no longer have a neighborhood school to fall back on. This is chance, not choice.
Most importantly, this "choice" and "competition" is failing to deliver improvements to our education system. In Chicago, scores have dropped at two-thirds of the 49 receiving schools. Only 18 percent of the mostly charter and contract schools that have replaced closed schools since 2002 perform well. Fifty-six percent of the Recovery School District schools were rated D or F at the end of the 2013-14 school year in New Orleans. Not one RSD school was rated A, fewer than 10 were rated B and 20 were rated C.
The Louisiana Department of Education took over 107 schools that were scoring below the state average and placed them into the Recovery School District after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After nine years of state control, only four of the 107 schools taken over by the RSD are above the state average. As Chicago closed schools we saw conditions deteriorate. We have special education students being taught under the stairs, we have a combined kindergarten/first-grade class with 42 children and we no longer have space for parent activities.
We spend more and get less with the "choice" and privatization envisioned by your HB 1733. Many parents have to wake their children in the early morning hours to be bused across town to often failing or near failing schools. In the 2001-02 school year, $13.9 million was spent on transportation to 120 schools in New Orleans. Currently $35 million is being spent on more than 80 schools. Certainly many parents would rather see this type of education spending increase inside the classroom rather than on transportation.
So many outside people came to New Orleans and Chicago to help reform our public education system, but they didn't come here and ask us what we wanted. They came here with their ideas of what they thought education reform was about. They often had little practical experience or research to support their theories. With heads full of ideology they never took the time to get to know us or what our concerns were about our public schools.
It was such a wasted opportunity because our communities desperately want to improve our public schools, but we had "reform" done to us instead of with us. Our children will be paying the price for a generation.
The ideology behind your HB 1733 is not based in the reality of what helps children. It is built on an illusion of parent choice. When you have a forced choice, that isn't parent choice at all.
We know you are thinking, "Well, that could never happen in Arkansas!" We hope it doesn't for your sake. We hope Arkansas lawmakers have the good sense to reject copying the disaster that's been made of our education systems. We hope you will get involved now in the fight for the schools our children deserve.
Irene Robinson is a grandparent of eight Chicago Public School students and a local school council member at Mollison Elementary School. Karran Harper Royal is a parent and education advocate in New Orleans.