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Conveyor Belt Schooling


The good news out of Louisiana this morning--via The Advocate, in Baton Rouge--is that state auditors have ordered a legislative oversight committee to review operations and fiscal records of LA charter schools. A growing series of red flags over NOLA-area charters have been raised, causing State Senator Ed Murray to note that "more and more of these issues [are] cropping up, not only with the finances but with performance as well."

A charter allows local groups to establish schools with taxpayer dollars but without the oversight of regularly elected school boards.

So what happens when public funding is used to educate kids, without democratically elected oversight? Answer: Take a look at southern Louisiana. The article references all kinds of unpleasant allegations, beginning with sexual abuse, and includes a semi-frantic quote from the LA Department of Ed, fretting about what will happen to Louisiana's status as the "national model" for charters.

In conversation with one of my favorite people, Phoebe Ferguson of the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, who lives in New Orleans, she described the RENEW charter chain there. She mentioned a few of RENEW's publicized selling points--including compelling students to walk in straight lines, "like a conveyor belt," when passing through the hall.

We chuckled, wondering whether RENEW students would get T-shirts upon graduation: "I am a RENEW graduate! I am human capital!"

So I checked out their website--and Phoebe was right. Regimentation is the foundation of many of RENEW's points of pride:

• Not only do kids walk in conveyor belt lines everywhere they go--those lines are silent.
• No bathroom breaks until pre-set times, and then under supervision.
• No hall passes.
• No uniform violations, gum or sunflower seeds (RENEW says they "sweat the small stuff").
• Structured reward systems with "points and paychecks."
• All classrooms have the same bulletin board configuration.

RENEW calls this the school's "culture." It strikes me that this is similar to another very distinct culture: incarceration. Maybe RENEW assumes that students in poverty have only two life paths: compliant and productive worker, or straight to prison. So better Door #1 than a wasted life? Sad.

What about the things that really do matter--instruction, curriculum and learning? Besides a bunch more regimentation (mandated grading scale, totally standardized lessons, tracking, rigorous data analysis, daily homework required), RENEW advertises a series of things that should be taken for granted in all schools:

• Reading in all classes.
• Relationships with parents and families.
• Variety of teaching methods.

Are these things so unusual that they need to be promoted as part of a special, reformy culture?

Maybe it's just that conveyor belt image that bothers me. Davis Guggenheim portrayed schools as conveyor belts, where kids with flip-top heads were siphoned off into their personal knowledge-acquisition destinies. In Waiting-for-Superman World, the lucky kids got on the right conveyor belt and lived happily ever after, their heads brimming with testable information.

You can sell anything these days. Caveat emptor--and godspeed to that oversight team in Louisiana.

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