SADOW: Putting Ideology Before Children

It’s tough to decide what’s more shocking about a complaint a few special interest groups have brought against Louisiana education agencies about public schools in New Orleans: the utter lack of logic and fact in the complaint, the crazy assumptions it makes, its separation from reality, or the hatred that it exudes. Regardless, it sadly puts ideology before children.

Filed with the U.S. Department of Justice by the Advancement Project, a group that believes racism is institutionalized into American government and society, and Journey for Justice Alliance, a smaller group focusing on preserving schools in majority black neighborhoods that contains three local organizations, the Coalition for Community Schools, the Conscious Concerned Citizens Controlling Community, and Vietnamese American Young Leaders of New Orleans, and also affiliated with a number of teacher unions, it claims violations under Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act. Specifically, it asserts that the pattern of school closures and dispersions of those students occur in areas of disproportionate racial minority composition of residents, which then results, it claims, with them being sent disproportionately to worse schools than those whites more likely are to attend. It seeks relief by not having closed five schools, likely to be converted into charter schools, that almost entirely have black students and are the last ones in the Recovery School District not charter schools, and a general moratorium on renewing charter schools.

It then proceeds in large part to moot these claims by its own words. First, note that within the Orleans Parish School District and RSD overlaid in the area, essentially there are no school attendance zones. It’s open admission to any school in the parish to which a student qualifies. This obviates immediately the claims not only that neighborhood schools are valuable in their own sake – because with open admissions there aren’t really any – but that any kind of discrimination in fact is going on by closing these schools in their traditional forms, because if reopened as charter schools they remain available as a choice for parents and that it was parental choice that was creating the distributions by race at schools.

 

This point to the real objection that the plaintiffs have – it’s not the closing of neighborhood schools, it’s the closing of them as traditional schools. That is, these groups hate charter schools, and attitude that weeps throughout the complaint, such as in the assertion that now all but a handful of schools in Orleans Parish – and as of next year, every RSD school will be – are charter schools has created a situation where “too many of the charter and privately-managed schools that have multiplied as replacements for our beloved neighborhood schools are test prep mills that promote prison-like environments, and seem to be geared at keeping young people of color controlled, undereducated, and dehumanized.” Or, in the inimical words of one of the complaint’s authors, closing and chartering schools “is the new Jim Crow.”

Which leads one to conclude that the plaintiffs believe superior education is not a worthwhile goal for minority children to achieve. After all, academic research has demonstrated that the charter school system in Orleans has produced improved returns beyond what traditional schools were doing for those students from closed traditional schools. Instead, they would rather keep these students in these schools, because they were traditionally run in a majority black neighborhood, than allow them either to attend that school as a charter, or to transfer to another charter school, either of which likely is to produce a superior educational experience, according to the data.

The complaint then really goes off the rails when it acknowledges the failing status of the five closed schools, thereby meaning these children only could have an opportunity for greater progress in either attending these as charter schools or transferring elsewhere. But this process, the group charges, is discriminatory because the OneApp system of allocating students in the open enrollment process, which depends upon family desires (what school and whether to send sibling to school together) and seats available produces distributions where the most majority black schools are usually the worst performers and those that are least majority black (keep in mind that in Orleans 86 percent of students are black) often are the best performers.

As they note, in part this is because OneApp does not include 10 schools that have some kinds of admission standards, of which these have much higher proportions of non-black students than the OneApp schools. Because the additional requirements makes these schools unable to participate in OneApp, it becomes an instrument of discrimination, according to the plaintiffs. Further, four of these schools have entrance assessments, two have slight neighborhood preferences in majority-white areas of Orleans, and two give preference to certain university faculty children, all of which the plaintiffs allege “disproportionately exclude [black] students,” aggravated by, they claim, a lack of dissemination of knowledge about the separate schools and additional requirements.

So, following this tortured logic, the charter nature of the system forces large-majority, if not entirely, black poorly-performing traditional schools to close/convert, which to date now means all of them, into a system where black students disproportionately end up in poorer-performing charter schools, even if these are better schools than the ones closed/converted, compared to white students, while the few traditional schools left have criteria alleged to be race-based (which must be assumed if it is considered a problem than they have proportionately fewer black students, despite the differential admissions criteria used, as the plaintiffs argue), all of which connotes illegal discrimination. This implies the entire concept of charter schools, the OneApp process, and the practice of allowed excluded schools from it on the basis of aptitude, neighborhood, and parental employment with knowledge about them said to deliberately withheld, are racially discriminatory. Or, as the plaintiffs allege, “the racial disparity caused by RSD’s policy of school closures, authorized by [the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education], and implemented by [the Louisiana Department of Education], provides circumstantial evidence of intentional discrimination.”

The stupidity writ large by these sentiments begins with the data. If in fact the entire system was designed to discriminate, there would not be significant outliers. Among the top-ranked schools in the parish, while almost all have lower proportions of black students, one has a higher proportion whit no white students. If a system designed deliberately to discriminate were in place, there could be no exceptions. The same is true in that while of the lower performing schools almost all have black student proportions at a higher level than the system average, two have them at lower levels and with a higher level than the white student average.

But the real poverty of intellect behind these charges comes in the half-baked conceptualizations of the meaning of the disparate numbers and their presumed causes. The argument is that making everything within OneApp a charter school, it sets up a mechanism designed to maximizing shunting of black children to worse performers and of non-blacks to better performers, and with the non-OneApp schools discriminatory requirements they amplify that mechanism.

Yet this entirely reverses the actual cause and effect, a mistake hinted at by reviewing the performance data by race above. Contrary to the complaint’s argument, performance does not determine racial distribution at a school, it is racial distribution that determines school performance. This, of course, is anathema to the plaintiffs’ conceptualization, because it invalidates the notion that, if prejudice is not causing the relationship to be in one direction, it is government policy that is the main determinant that makes it go in the other direction.

More specifically, for five decades policy has been that poorer black student performance in schools is solved by using the traditional government-monopoly model – which placed power in the hands of bureaucrats, unions, and ideologues wedded to the idea of maximally empowering government and expanding its size and reach over individuals – by pumping more money into the system (which also happened to increase the power and wealth of these elites) in order to overcome the vestiges of state-sponsored discrimination, even as these actual mechanisms of discrimination had been wiped out of the law books. Yet the achievement gap continues, pointing to the fact that this policy does not work, and it does not work because, as identified by scholars beginning with Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Edward Banfield, poverty, supposedly an indicator of racism and strongly correlated with academic achievement, is much more validly an indicator of a complex of attitudes that undervalues education and related others that do not focus on achievement for the future, but on present consumption.

Thus, even if a partial contributor to adoption of the “present orientation” as the prevalent attitude within the black community was institutionalized racism, eliminating that by itself does not alter that orientation to a “future orientation” more often evident in the white community. Policy must create incentives to evolve out of that, which often means the exact opposite of spending huge sums through institutions that have flourished by their ability to capture these sums, because this strategy only enables these to place more emphasis on institutional maintenance than on intended institutional mission.

This is why the charter movement has been successful in New Orleans, as much because its violation of the government-one-size-fits-all model that matches better resources to student need with fewer impediments as its ability to uproot institutionalized structures that catered more to establishment interests, special interests, and political ideologues than to children’s needs. And this precisely is what the plaintiffs object to, for they represent interests that benefitted from the previous alignment.

So they concoct this fiction of racism in education delivery in New Orleans by mistakenly reversing the causation – it is cultural attitudes largely within the black community that cause lower performing schools, not a system “trapping” black children in lower performing schools – and, more specifically in doing so, set up a fantastic and disturbing conceptualization of blacks in America. For in their declarations of the non-OneApp school admission exceptions being illegitimately discriminatory, they must make two horrendous assumptions. First, they are saying that, by their very nature, higher standards, neighborhood preference, and job preference discriminate against black children. Which, secondly, leads to the horrific attitude, given the lack of employment or housing discrimination in America, that black children are intellectually less capable, black families don’t aspire to live in “better” neighborhoods, and that blacks have less innate ability to work in higher education.

It is lamentable that the plaintiffs carry such a negative set of attitudes about an entire segment of the American population that shares a racial characteristic. Only if you believe significant differences exist between blacks and others both in intellect and attitudes, and that for some reason attitudes are immutable, can their assertion of the “discriminatory” nature of the non-OneApp schools additional criteria make any sense.

Understand that, as the plaintiffs readily admit, that the circumstantial statistical evidence makes sense only when there is theory behind it to explain it. For this kind of claim, to interpret the evidence the way they do, there must be demonstrated, not merely asserted, intent of discrimination – a preposterous notion in this case given the confirmed salutary impact the charter system has had on black (and all) students, the neutrality of the results of OneApp, and the reasonableness of the admission standards for the non-OneApp schools in that their objectives reasonably have no racial content.

Hopefully, the bizarre ideas behind the complaint should be more than enough to dismiss it, although regrettably Attorney General Eric Holder has previously evinced sympathy for these kind of views on similar matters. Otherwise, children will suffer to fulfill the psychological needs of some narrow-minded adults.

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