GWEN IFILL: And now to the latest chapter in our ongoing series on school reform in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has been tracking efforts in classrooms in both cities. Tonight, in his update from New Orleans, he looks at the ever-expanding role for charter schools.
BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: How are you? Good to see you. Good to see you guys.
JOHN MERROW, NewsHour Correspondent: President Obama has made education a top priority, and charter schools like this one are high on his agenda.
BARACK OBAMA: We’re very proud of what’s been accomplished at this school, and we want to make sure that we are duplicating that success all across the country.
JOHN MERROW: Charter schools are public schools, open to all and paid for with tax dollars. They’re free from board control and often from teacher unions, and so, unlike traditional public schools, charters make their own decisions about curriculum, staffing, and student rules.
Charter schools are growing in popularity. In the last eight years, the number of public schools that have been granted charters — basically independent status — has doubled. There are now over 5,000 across the country.
In March, President Obama sent Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to New Orleans, which some consider the national laboratory of the charter movement. Leading the city’s charter transformation is Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas.
PAUL VALLAS, Superintendent, Recovery School District: Well, I’m a believer in schools having the freedom and autonomy to make decisions that are in the best interest of the children. And so I support charter schools, because charter schools are a vehicle for achieving that type of freedom.
High hopes for charter schools
JOHN MERROW: New Orleans has long been one of the nation's worst-performing school districts. Paul Vallas is banking on charters to change that.
Here, more than half of all public school students attend charter schools right now, and the grand plan is to turn just about every public school into a charter school.
That raises some questions: Are charter schools the answer? Is New Orleans moving too fast?
Just five years ago, Sophie B. Wright Middle School was near the bottom of the failing school district. Then it applied for and received charter status from the state board of education.
In some ways, the school remains the same. It's still open to all students, currently 325 children enrolled in fourth through eighth grades. But in other ways, Sophie B. Wright has undergone a dramatic makeover.
In traditional public schools, a district board makes most of the decisions. At this charter, Principal Sharon Clark calls the shots.
SHARON CLARK, Principal, Sophie B. Wright Middle School: As principal of a charter school, you are responsible for everything. I make sure instruction is in place, and its effective, and its aligned with the state standards. I make sure that the budget is balanced and that we have money for payroll. I make sure that we continue to register kids and that our attendance works.
JOHN MERROW: Principal Clark has used her power to make some significant changes.
Where are the boys?
One of her first decisions was to separate the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades into single-sex classes.
MALE STUDENT: At this age, boys get distracted. So by us being all boys, we're more focused on our work.
FEMALE STUDENT: When you have boys in your class, you got to be, like, trying to impress them, but if you just in school with some girls, you're just not worrying about it.
JOHN MERROW: Many students attended traditional schools prior to arriving here.
FEMALE STUDENT: At the beginning of the year, I was going to Marshall. And it was like the principal couldn't control his students. There was fighting. So I told my mama I didn't want to go there.
When I came here, I felt like it was much better. The teachers were showing you a lot of attention, make sure you understand your work.
DARLENE RIVERS, Teacher, Sophie B. Wright Middle School: OK, let's take a minute, guys, and let's see what's the prime factorization of 350.
Principals have greater control
JOHN MERROW: Principal Clark rewards her best teachers with bonuses of up to $5,000. Darlene Rivers teaches math.
DARLENE RIVERS: With my first year with the test, my fifth-grade students scored the highest in the district. Your test scores have to be in the 90th percentile, and you get a monetary award, and I have received that. Yes, I have, I received that, and it really came in handy.
JOHN MERROW: Principal Clark does all the hiring. And if it doesn't work out?
SHARON CLARK: If they don't have the mission that we have in mind as part of their mission, we are free to what I call freeing up a teacher's future.
JOHN MERROW: She means she fires teachers who don't measure up. Clark's authority seems to be making a difference.
SHARON CLARK: Our school is performing in the top 10 of the city. We are actually performing higher than some of the magnet schools that have selective admissions, and we don't.
JOHN MERROW: In fact, 9 of the 10 top performing schools in the district are charters. Vallas is hoping some of the same magic will work on his worst schools, like this one.
At Drew, only 15 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in math and just 6 percent in English. It's one of four traditional schools that Vallas wants to convert to charters.
PAUL VALLAS: The majority of the schools in Orleans Parish are charters, and that trend is going to continue. That percentage of kids being educated in charter schools is going to grow in the coming years, with transition schools like this and, you know, five of our brand-new high schools that we're opening up.
JOHN MERROW: Vallas has the power to decide which schools in his district become charters. And with fewer district-run schools, Vallas is eroding the power of the old school board, long known for its corruption and academic failure.
PAUL VALLAS: My goal is to make sure that, within the next two to three years, we will have a system of schools that are independent of the old, damaging covenants that existed prior to the hurricane, and that is this top-down management control structure that limits your ability to hire the best people, to fire the worst people, that limits your ability to have a longer school day and longer school year, if that's what benefits your kids.
Charter movement 'hurts children'
JOHN MERROW: But not everyone believes that charters are the answer. Principal Cheryllyn Branche turned down Vallas' offer of a charter for her school.
CHERYLLYN BRANCHE, Principal, Benjamin Banneker Elementary School: We have remained as we are. We think we're doing an incredible job with some of the most challenging children.
JOHN MERROW: Benjamin Banneker Elementary was one of the most improved schools in the district last year. Its progress makes Branche skeptical of Vallas' grand plan.
CHERYLLYN BRANCHE: I think there are good charters and bad charters. I really do feel that there's room at the table, but I don't think to designate that an entire city be charterized makes any sense. Good schools make sense for every child.
JOHN MERROW: National studies support Branche. Although there are many outstanding charter schools, reports show that overall charter success is mixed.
Branche has further reason to be wary: She says some charter schools are being unfair to disadvantaged children.
CHERYLLYN BRANCHE: Parents are seeking places for their children who may have physical handicaps, mental or emotional handicapping conditions, and they're not being accepted by charters. I get referrals from specific principals of charter schools. "Go to Banneker. Tell Miss Branche I sent you. Go to Banneker."
JOHN MERROW: It's what school administrators call "dumping," transferring those with special education needs or just kids who are behaving badly to other schools.
You're getting kids who are being pushed out of charters...
CHERYLLYN BRANCHE: Correct.
JOHN MERROW: ... more special-ed kids than you...
CHERYLLYN BRANCHE: Correct. Yes, exactly right.
JOHN MERROW: So the charter movement is hurting you.
CHERYLLYN BRANCHE: It is hurting children.
A question of exclusion
JOHN MERROW: District-wide data indicate that Vallas has a problem. The average special education population in traditional schools is 12 percent, but at charter schools, it's less than 8 percent.
Are your charter schools somehow excluding special needs kids?
PAUL VALLAS: No. No, not at all. Charters are generally much smaller than regular, traditionally run schools. You know, so charters may not have the capacity to have the various special education specialties like the speech therapists, et cetera. A parent's going to ask, "Do you have these services?" And if a charter doesn't have those services, the parent's going to look for another school.
KARRAN HARPER ROYAL, Parent Advocate: That's discrimination. That's discrimination. You can dress it up however you like to, but it's really discrimination.
JOHN MERROW: Parent advocate Karran Harper Royal has a child with special needs attending a New Orleans public school. She says Vallas needs to slow down.
KARRAN HARPER ROYAL: He needs to appoint a staff person or a few staff people who review the admissions of these charter schools, because clearly something is going wrong here. I want to see objective evaluation of the charters we have before we move forward with trying to charter everything.
JOHN MERROW: Aren't you asking an awful lot? This is early in the game.
KARRAN HARPER ROYAL: I'm not asking an awful lot; we're talking about our children. I have a child in this system. Why would I want less from a charter board than I would expect from a school board?
JOHN MERROW: While Vallas admits to no wrongdoing, he promises to hold charters accountable.
PAUL VALLAS: As more of our schools convert to charters and as more of our schools are granted charter-like independence, we're going to be doing more policing, we're going to focus more on accountability. If you are deliberating discouraging people or turning people away, that would be breach of contract. You can lose your charter.
JOHN MERROW: Nationwide, the percentage of charter schools is about 5 percent, a far cry from Vallas' 54 percent. In the coming years, both numbers are expected to grow substantially and, as they do, there's sure to be more debate about their effectiveness, as well as calls for more regulation.