Are Charter Schools Neither Civil or Right? Assessing the Intersection of Voting Rights and Educational Equity
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Legislature – to the objection of many in the delegation that represented New Orleans – took control of nearly all of New Orleans’ public schools. The legislature targeted New Orleans – a predominately Black jurisdiction – for public school takeover and vested power and control of the lion’s share of the city’s public schools in the Recovery School District (RSD). The RSD was to be a statewide special school district with governance vested in non-elected officials. On these facts alone, one should question the argument that school choice in New Orleans was designed to enhance civil rights. Even assuming that a state takeover of New Orleans’ public schools would result in a world-class education for public school students in New Orleans, it is concerning that the state takeover of public schools would also replace almost all of the power that the popularly elected and predominately Black school board in New Orleans held with a new, predominately White and non-politically accountable power structure. No politician in this country would ever demand that White, middle-class parents exchange political power for the HOPE of better schools.
Recently, the Hastings Race & Poverty Law Journal published a piece that I wrote addressing the intersection of the school choice movement and civil rights. The piece is titled, “Killing Two Achievements with One Stone: The Intersectional Impacts of Shelby County on the Rights to Vote and Access High Performing Schools.” The paper recounts the inseparable linkage between the right to vote and equitable access to quality educational opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities. The paper sought to evaluate the role of the Supreme Court’s most recent watershed Voting Rights Act case on educational equity. Using the states of Florida and Louisiana as case studies, the paper uncovers a troubling intersection between state takeover districts that remove electoral power from racial and ethnic minorities and the decreased likelihood that governing bodies (state takeover versus popularly elected local districts) will close charter schools. At least in the case of New Orleans, the results of this research indicate that the school choice movement may jeopardize movements towards civil rights and appears to run counter to the argument that school choice may improve accountability.
Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the states of Florida and Louisiana – both formerly impacted to some extent by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – required popularly elected schools boards. State courts in both Louisiana and Florida have ruled on whether the requirement to elect school boards restricts state government officials from establishing non-elected, independent state-level school boards that are able to authorize charter schools without the approval and/or input of the popularly elected county/parish-level school boards. The state of Louisiana interpreted its constitutional mandate to elect school boards at the parish-level to require elected school boards while also allowing the state to establish other, non-elected school boards. Florida decided that all school boards in the state must ultimately be answerable to the popularly elected county-level school board. The practical implication of this difference is that the state of Florida could not by legislative fiat remove the ability of racial and ethnic minorities to control education policy and the politics of education in geographic areas where racial and ethnic minorities present in high concentrations. On the contrary, the state of Louisiana could – and did – limit the political involvement of voters who are also racial and ethnic minorities through establishing alternate school boards with more power. Moreover, the state of Louisiana could authorize school boards that are selected through means other than popular election. It is really hard to think that school choice is enhancing civil rights when, in fact, the school choice movement removes the ability of racial and ethnic minorities to participate in the election of the individuals who will most influence local education policy for the mere possibility of “improved” schools.
The various constitutional interpretations of state constitutional language matter in terms of educational equity and voting rights: quite frankly, Florida closes a higher proportion of its charter schools than does Louisiana. This doesn’t seem particularly salient until one considers the percentage of charter schools that each state labeled as low performing in the years of analysis. In Louisiana, a whopping 82% of charter schools were rated as C or below and 42% of charter schools were rated as D or below. In Florida, only 38% of charter schools were rated as C or below and 17% of charter schools were rated a D or below. Still, Florida closed down roughly 30% of its charter schools and Louisiana closed only about 17% of its charter schools. One conspicuous difference between the states of Louisiana and Florida is that all schools in Florida, including charter schools, answer to popularly elected county-level school boards. The same is not true in Louisiana: large numbers of charter schools are not accountable to popularly elected school boards at the parish-level. Instead, those charter schools are only accountable to the state of Louisiana, and one must effectively be willing and able to unseat numerous members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education or the governor to shift education policy and/or influence the politics of education. Both of these options require a statewide referendum to change local education in New Orleans (where the majority of Louisiana’s charter schools operate).
Whether the school choice movement is a civil right or civil wrong remains to be seen. It is, however, imperative that those discussing civil rights remember that access to quality education and access to the electoral franchise were components of the civil rights movement. State takeover districts, including those that seek to convert traditional public schools to charter schools, strip minority stakeholders of the right to vote in exchange for debatably “better” schools. A recent report from affiliates of Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education found that district-based reform efforts might be more fruitful than state-based takeover strategies; my work supports this notion. As the Louisiana state legislature considers whether and how to return New Orleans’ public schools to local control, I submit that the return should be immediate and should restore power to the popularly elected Orleans Parish School Board. When contrasting the states of Florida and Louisiana and the role of political accountability in education policy and the politics of education, data supports that some measure of political accountability through the electoral process may provide enhanced accountability. Is greater accountability not the goal of the school choice movement?