Report — From the November 2019 issue

The K-12 Takeover

Big Philanthropy’s bid to privatize education

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Last May, the families of students at Cypress Academy, an independent charter school in New Orleans, received an email announcing that the school would close when classes ended the following week and that all its students would be transferred to another nearby charter for the upcoming year. Parents would have the option of entering their children in the city’s charter-enrollment lottery, but the lottery’s first round had already taken place, and the most desirable spots for the fall were filled.

Founded in 2015, a decade after New Orleans became the nation’s first city to begin replacing all its public schools with charters, Cypress was something of a rarity. Like about nine in ten of the city’s charter schools, it filled spaces by lottery rather than by selective admission. But while most of the nonselective schools in New Orleans had majority populations of low-income African-American students, Cypress mirrored the city’s demographics, drawing the children of professionals—African-American and white alike—as well as poorer students. Cypress reserved 20 percent of its seats for children with reading difficulties, and it offered a progressive education model, including “learning by doing,” rather than the strict conduct codes that dominated the city’s nonselective schools. In just three years, the school had outperformed many established charters—a particular feat given that one in four Cypress students had a disability, double the New Orleans average. Families flocked to Cypress, especially ones with children who had disabilities.

KIPP Central City Academy, New Orleans, 2016 © William Widmer/Redux

KIPP Central City Academy, New Orleans, 2016 © William Widmer/Redux

Serving such children is often expensive—educating a typical child with autism, for example, can cost three times the per-pupil average in New Orleans. In a traditional school district, costs are spread across the system, but charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately run, are designed to operate independently, with school funds following each child. In New Orleans, the nation’s first all-charter city, every school is an island responsible for providing virtually every service to its students, with little support from a central, district-wide administration. (The New Orleans district recently carved out a fund for students with disabilities from state and local coffers, but was able to allocate only a small fraction of the $9.9 million that schools requested.) And so, as the 2017–18 academic year ended, Cypress found itself with a $600,000 budget deficit for the year ahead.

A big part of what had made Cypress effective was that it had a teacher and an assistant in every classroom. But to cut costs, the school’s principal, Bob Berk, reluctantly reduced the number of assistants before eventually concluding that the staff cuts were hurting instruction. When Berk turned to local officials for help, the district suggested that Cypress cut expenses but did not offer financial assistance.

The transformation of New Orleans into an all-charter city was spearheaded by a handful of large philanthropic organizations, and cultivating relationships with these institutions is often essential to a school’s survival. Faced with a shortfall, Berk asked for help from the city’s principal charter-school gatekeeper, New Schools for New Orleans (N.S.N.O.), which allocates much of the funding that flows to local schools. In the past, Cypress had gotten over a million dollars from N.S.N.O., as well as a one-time grant of $250,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, but now Berk was told by N.S.N.O. that there were no philanthropic funds available for operational expenses. Unable to plug its deficit, Cypress became New Orleans’s first academically successful charter forced to close.

Big Philanthropy first embraced school privatization in the mid-Eighties, when Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation underwrote John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which became the bible of the privatization movement. Founded in 1942 by brothers in factory automation, the Bradley Foundation had long supported right-wing causes, including dismantling unions, and its wide-ranging support of market-based education reform went hand in hand with this goal. Among other efforts, the foundation helped to finance Milwaukee’s 1990 school voucher law, the nation’s first—and to defend it against legal challenges. As far back as the 1950s, the University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman had advocated for a system of government-funded school vouchers that would allow parents to use tax dollars to pay for private schools; however, vouchers had an ignominious history in the South, where they were used as a way to circumvent court-ordered desegregation.

When the voucher concept failed to catch on nationwide, education reformers on both sides of the aisle embraced charter schools as the next best way to loosen the government’s (and the unions’) grip on K–12 education. Since about 2000, the model’s chief proponents and funders have been three big philanthropies: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. (The Walton Foundation, which recently announced another $1 billion investment in K–12 education, may be the single largest charter-school benefactor in New Orleans, typically providing grants between $100,000 and $350,000 to start-ups.) According to Follow the Money, by the political scientist Sarah Reckhow, these three foundations quadrupled their spending on K–12 education between 2000 and 2005, reaching $400 million.

An earlier generation of philanthropists, the publisher Walter Annenberg in particular, encouraged grantees—many of them educators—to pursue reform ideas. By contrast, the new philanthropists set their own policy agendas, investing in what professors Jal Mehta and Steven Teles, of Harvard and Johns Hopkins, respectively, call “jurisdictional challengers”—organizations that are working to upend traditional public schools and school boards by empowering “a different set of actors.” These include so-called charter-management organizations (C.M.O.s) and alternative teacher-development institutions such as Teach for America.

After Hurricane Katrina wiped out all but a fraction of New Orleans public schools—only 8 of 126 did not flood—education reformers saw an opportunity to remake a public-school system that had, prior to the storm, long suffered from endemic corruption and infrastructure decay. Within a year of the hurricane, the state of Louisiana took over most of the city’s schools and, working in concert with the local school district and with national organizations and their philanthropic backers, converted a majority into charters. New Orleans completed the transition to an all-charter district in the past year.

The system operated on a bottom-line approach known as the portfolio model, which seeks to manage schools like stocks in a Wall Street portfolio; the model rewards high performers (as measured primarily by test scores) with further investment and punishes poor performers by cutting off funding or by shuttering them. The promise of this model was that idealistic technocrats would run schools like businesses, emphasizing competition, financial incentives, and accountability. Freed from bureaucracy and union rules, schools would blossom and adapt to meet the needs of children. Families could vote with their feet; if they didn’t like a school, they could choose another anywhere in the city. Schools that did not meet the grade would be closed, but new and better schools would open in their places. To realize these benefits, the New Orleans reformers stripped the locally elected school board of much of its authority and ceded control to nonelected charter-management organizations and non-profit groups. For the next decade, democratic oversight of the vast majority of New Orleans schools effectively ceased to exist. Instead, education policy was largely dictated by the charter establishment and a handful of its wealthy donors.

Alexander P. Tureaud Elementary School, in New Orleans’s Seventh Ward, which closed in 2014 because of the shift to a charter school system

Alexander P. Tureaud Elementary School, in New Orleans’s Seventh Ward, which closed in 2014 because of the shift to a charter school system © Edmund D. Fountain/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The portfolio model established in New Orleans was nothing like the original vision of charter schools—itself a response to growing criticism of public schools. The Bradley Foundation’s push for vouchers had followed on the heels of A Nation at Risk, a bipartisan report commissioned under President Ronald Reagan and published in 1983, which argued that the country’s economic future was being jeopardized not just by foreign competitors, but by an inadequate education system. (The report almost certainly overstated the problems with U.S. education, according to Mehta.) The head of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, offered a novel suggestion for improving public schools: give teachers and parents a charter that would allow them to operate a school for five to ten years, free from many of the rules imposed by unions and government bureaucracies. Shanker envisioned “six or seven or twelve” teachers collaborating to create “a school within [a] school” that would ultimately function as a “totally autonomous” entity within a school district.

These schools would be reviewed periodically by school-board, union, and community representatives, and only successful ones would have their charters renewed. Shanker imagined lessons from this charter experiment being disseminated among traditional public schools. As Richard Kahlenberg recounts in his biography of the celebrated union leader, Tough Liberal, Shanker was distressed by the racial strife that had erupted in the 1960s between New York City’s mostly white teachers and minority communities in places such as Ocean Hill–Brownsville, in Brooklyn, and he believed that public schools of choice could attract children from varied racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, helping to solve the problem of segregation.

When philanthropists and social entrepreneurs embraced charter schools, that vision of teacher- and community-led schools was virtually extinguished. Over one third of charters are run by large management organizations such as the San Francisco–based Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), which operates hundreds of schools across the country, including eight in New Orleans. Nor is there much oversight beyond a periodic review by a charter authorizer—typically a university or other government-sanctioned organization—every three to five years. In many states, including Michigan and California, there are so many authorizers that even the worst charters can stay in business after their charter is revoked simply by shopping for a new authorizer.

What began as the brainchild of a legendary union leader became a way of wresting power away from teachers. Again, New Orleans served as a test case: after Katrina, the school district and Louisiana’s education department fired 7,600 unionized teachers and other school employees, most of them African Americans who made up a sizable swath of the city’s middle class.

The silencing of teachers was facilitated by Teach for America, which began in 1990 with the laudable goal of providing a service corps of college graduates modeled on the Peace Corps. After the hurricane, Wendy Kopp, T.F.A.’s founder and the wife of the KIPP Foundation’s CEO, sent recruits to New Orleans to replace many of the city’s fired African-American teachers. (T.F.A. and KIPP are among the largest grant recipients of the nation’s top fifteen philanthropies.)

Typically, new T.F.A. staffers were handed canned curricula and detailed rules on classroom management. Emulating the vision of the efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor, teachers were to be treated much like replaceable parts in the charter machine. While the new teachers were willing, initially, to work fourteen-, sixteen-, and eighteen-hour days, close to half came to the city with less than three years of experience. And in the schools that served the poorest students, most teachers lasted no more than a year or two. Ironically, today N.S.N.O. blames its declining test scores in part on what it calls a teacher-attrition “crisis.”

In the wake of Katrina, there were efforts at creating locally led charter schools in the manner Shanker first envisioned. One well-organized group in the Mid-City neighborhood, which decided to launch a democratically run community school in 2008, exemplified that struggle.

The group’s quest began at the Morris F. X. Jeff Sr. building on Rendon Street, once a whites-only school that had been renamed, in 1995, to honor a revered and recently deceased local educator. Morris Jeff, as it was known, stood just a few blocks from both the palatial homes on Ursulines and Esplanade avenues and some of the city’s most violent streets. After the white flight of the 1960s, the school became almost entirely African-American, with 98 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Built on a berm, the school didn’t suffer much flood damage beyond that from a foot or so of water in the basement. Yet the building stood empty for a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina. According to an account by Brian Beabout, a professor at the University of New Orleans, when a government-contracted cleanup crew arrived and began clearing what they called debris from the building, including what seemed to be books and other school supplies, the neighborhood took notice.

Broderick Bagert, a New Orleans native and Oxford-educated community organizer, lived just a few blocks from the school. In January 2008, Bagert and his wife attended the first of several public meetings held by Louisiana’s Recovery School District (R.S.D.)—which had been created to take over “failing schools,” and in the process had absorbed most of the city’s nonselective schools—to gather public input for a school-facilities master plan that would determine the fate of school buildings like Morris Jeff.

Following the meeting, the Bagerts and their neighbors conducted a survey of five hundred local households and concluded that the community needed the building to reopen as a school. They established Neighbors for Morris F. X. Jeff School, a committee as diverse as the neighborhood, with “educators, preachers, teachers; black and white, old and young,” according to an article in the New Orleans Tribune. They got the word out about upcoming meetings, lobbied local officials, and organized bus trips to hearings held at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (B.E.S.E.) in Baton Rouge.

The goal was to create a racially and economically integrated, democratically led nonselective community school—in short, the kind of school that had eluded New Orleans thus far. They wanted to buck the trend of so-called no-excuses schools run by charter-management organizations, which, for example, often required children to walk along straight lines painted on hallway floors or to eat lunch in silence. Yet, bucking that trend, as countless community groups had found, usually resulted in the rejection of a school’s charter application.

In fact, the chartering process was designed to deny input by community groups. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, then-governor Kathleen Blanco signed executive orders suspending key provisions of Louisiana’s school law, including the requirement to consult with, and obtain the votes of, affected faculty and parents before converting an existing public school into a charter school. Granted the authority to take over “failing schools,” B.E.S.E. handed most charter-authorization decisions to the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Of the forty-four organizations that applied for charter authorization in 2006, many of them community-led groups, only six were approved. “We do have a process where for some reason groups that are trying to come up organically are having trouble getting through,” conceded Caroline Roemer, who heads the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, in 2011.

Most of the contracts for nonselective schools went to KIPP and local charter organizations that followed KIPP’s no-excuses playbook. The Morris Jeff committee, however, continued to press its case, attending civic meetings and lobbying local officials, including Senator Mary Landrieu and Paul Vallas, then the R.S.D.’s controversial new chief.

To win the backing of the charter establishment, Morris Jeff would also have to work with—or around—New Schools for New Orleans. Founded in 2006 by Sarah Usdin, who came to Louisiana as part of the first Teach for America cohort, N.S.N.O. had quickly raised hundreds of millions of dollars in government and philanthropic grants and become a key source of funds for charter schools.* But Morris Jeff had trouble wooing N.S.N.O.

* The Walton, Broad, and Gates foundations have all been major donors to N.S.N.O., though Walton also allocates funds directly to charters. In a departure from past practice, Walton is now making some of its funds available nationally to traditional public schools.

First, the group needed to win a charter from a local authorizer. At one roadblock, the Morris Jeff contingent was told that there wasn’t a large enough school-age population in the area, which had once boasted five elementary schools, to justify reopening the school. Under one district plan, only two of the neighborhood’s five schools were slated to reopen and the Morris Jeff building was to be “repurpose[d].”

“From a neighborhood standpoint, we thought this was devastating,” said Jennifer Weishaupt, a local entrepreneur who had joined the Morris Jeff campaign. “What were they going to do with these school buildings? How were we going to attract people to the neighborhood if they couldn’t get their kids educated there?”

Weishaupt had participated in an earlier effort, by another neighborhood group, to charter the John Dibert Elementary School, which was also located in Mid-City. That group’s charter application had been denied. Eventually, the planners backed down and assured the Morris Jeff group that their demands would be considered.

By August 2008, the Morris Jeff group had achieved some success. An updated master plan introduced a new site for the school, but it was in one of the neighborhood’s few parks. Protesters pushed for a way to save both. By then the Morris Jeff committee had learned, through data collected by Greg Rigamer, a statistician who had studied the storm’s aftermath, that the Mid-City neighborhood had the highest projected school enrollment in New Orleans. This suggested that “the R.S.D.’s decisions had had nothing to do with population projections versus capacity,” according to Bagert.

Morris Jeff became a New Orleans outlier when its charter was finally approved in 2010, but it continued to face formidable challenges, especially in realizing its commitment to democracy. The school was determined to sanction a teachers’ union, becoming only the second New Orleans charter to do so. The contract that emerged, following a yearlong negotiation, was designed not only to protect teachers, but to elicit input from both teachers and parents in, for example, setting discipline and special-education policies.

“The goal of any urban district in particular is to get people across lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion on the same page and to work in harmony for the betterment of all those schools,” said Andre Perry, who had been one of the few African-American charter-school leaders in the city early on. Morris Jeff, Perry added, had gotten the development challenge “exactly right.”

Morris Jeff was different in one other way as well. Three years after its founding, the school had received no funding via N.S.N.O. “We didn’t fit their model,” explained Patricia Perkins, Morris Jeff’s principal at that time. It wasn’t until 2014 that Morris Jeff’s grant application was finally accepted.

A student at Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School hangs a collection of “Save Our School” posters made by students. The school closed in 2013. © William Widmer/The Wall Street Journal/Redux

A student at Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School hangs a collection of “Save Our School” posters made by students. The school closed in 2013. © William Widmer/The Wall Street Journal/Redux

In August 2015, at an oddly celebratory conference marking the ten-year anniversary of Katrina and the charter-school takeover, the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University unveiled preliminary findings of a much-anticipated study on the New Orleans experiment. The report showed gains in both high school graduation rates and elementary test scores, which it found to be largely attributable to the reforms instituted by charter schools. Of course, reformers had been quick to declare the New Orleans experiment a success even before then. In 2010, Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, said that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that had happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

But even by the reformers’ own metrics, this success was ephemeral: in 2017, 65 percent of schools scored lower than they had three years earlier. And the data presented at Tulane hadn’t taken into account substantially higher per-pupil spending in the city—at least 13 percent more compared with districts that had spent similar amounts before the storm. In the ten years following Katrina, New Orleans netted a total of $250 million in federal grants and philanthropic funding. New Orleans charters also benefited from a one-time $1.8 billion FEMA grant to rebuild schools.

And yet the Education Research Alliance’s own study suggested that school choice “increased stratification” between kids who attended selective, high-performing schools and those who went to nonselective, and generally lower-performing, schools. Nearly a decade after the storm, 48 percent of open-admissions schools were rated D, F, or T—those designated T were deemed so bad they were taken over by a new charter operator. And when low-performing schools closed, the children in those schools typically entered other failing schools. (Last year, the state adopted a controversial new scoring rubric, making apples-to-apples comparisons more difficult, but according to the new grading system, 45 percent of open-admissions schools were still rated D, F, or T in 2018.)

The latest state data confirms that New Orleans test scores have stagnated or declined since 2013. This year, only four charter high schools in New Orleans scored above the state average in English and math—of those, three were selective schools. The vast majority of nonselective schools performed well below average for the state, one of the lowest performing states in the nation, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Another study, by the Education Research Alliance, also found that when district scores improved, it was a result of closing underperforming schools, not by improving existing ones. This helps explain why black families “do not perceive that the New Orleans schools are better in the post-Katrina period,” according to a study in Urban Affairs Review, though the authors of that study, political scientists Domingo Morel and Sally Nuamah, argue that a primary reason for this dissatisfaction is that the state takeover disenfranchised black voters. Ashana Bigard, a parent activist, notes that the reforms themselves, including the demise of neighborhood schools, which created lengthy commutes for young children, who are now bused all over the city, have raised the ire of many families.

During the anniversary conference, Howard Fuller, a former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and a leading African-American advocate for charters, shocked his mostly white audience with the following impassioned lament: “What people haven’t firmly grasped is that we wanted to be helped, [but] we wanted to be an integral part of defining what role education should play in our continuing struggle to truly realize freedom. That has unsettled my soul. How do I help make that happen when I’m swimming with sharks on the right and on the left? How do I chart a course that speaks to the pain that my people have experienced?”

It is not surprising that a sweeping social and educational experiment following a devastating natural disaster could bring a host of problems. But New Orleans’s experiment—one in which both untested business ideas and unelected outsiders played a significant role—had grave unintended consequences. The portfolio model’s approach emphasized test scores at the expense of other crucial educational goals, including nurturing children and fostering their creativity and citizenship. Charter schools responded to this pressure by subjecting students to intensive test prep, including spending thousands of dollars on private tutors, and by weeding out students who didn’t test well. And some schools cheated.

This summer, Henderson Lewis Jr., the New Orleans superintendent, ordered a criminal investigation into the latest charter-school grade-fixing scandals. In addition, he asked the state of Louisiana to conduct an audit of every charter high school in New Orleans—raising questions not only about the charter sector’s test performance, but about its much-touted graduation rates as well.

The charter revolution has followed Silicon Valley’s dictum to “move fast and break things.” Charter operators strive to outperform the market while chasing a limited supply of philanthropic dollars. For children, the system is like a Darwinian game of musical chairs, with the weakest kids left out when the music stops—when failing schools close, or when they are pushed out of schools that can’t, or won’t, deal with their problems.

Another recent study confirmed what had long been common knowledge in the charter community: principals, knowing that the survival of their schools and their eligibility for new tranches of funding depended on boosting test scores, engaged in a variety of tactics to woo relatively easy-to-teach kids and counsel out children with behavioral problems or learning disabilities. A class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center accused Louisiana’s education department of discriminating against students with disabilities and excluding them from schools. In 2014, a judicial consent decree tightened oversight of the city’s charters. Yet, as recently as 2017, according to the state auditor, New Orleans schools were still “enrolling fewer at-risk students” than required by law. The charter system has also seen high dropout rates.

“There were some pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain,” conceded Andre Perry, the former charter-network leader, including “suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special-needs kids well.”

There were other troubling social costs, as well. Most New Orleans nonselective charter schools practiced no-excuses discipline; the slightest deviation from dress or conduct codes resulted in punishment, which in turn led to sky-high suspension and expulsion rates. These policies fell particularly hard on a student body that had only recently been traumatized by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Families—some of whom had been relegated to the squalid conditions of the Louisiana Superdome, others forced to flee to other states—returned home to an alien education system. The charter-school application process was so arcane—each school had its own forms, due dates, and requirements—it stumped all but the savviest families. Today, absenteeism remains high, with one quarter of K–12 students “chronically absent.”

Eventually, the charter establishment sought to mitigate the system’s worst excesses—for example, by creating a uniform enrollment system that was easier for parents to navigate, as well as a centralized expulsion and suspension system. The charter schools also have sought to hire more teachers of color and to modify their disciplinary practices.

As recently as 2015, N.S.N.O. admitted that the New Orleans charter experiment still had a long way to go to address the current system’s inequities. Michael Stone, then N.S.N.O.’s leader, acknowledged the challenge of making sure “schools aren’t just willy-nilly excluding kids and doing it in soft ways and hard ways.” This included the difficulties low-income families face in accessing the best charter schools. But N.S.N.O.’s aggressive public relations campaign continued unabated. Around this time, applicants for a communications position at N.S.N.O. were required to “ghostwrite a letter to the editor . . . in the voice of a New Orleans charter school parent” that would make clear that “both the student and the parent have had overwhelmingly positive experiences.”

Meanwhile, education philanthropists tightened their grip on school districts, in New Orleans and beyond. During the 2012 elections for the leadership of the Orleans Parish School Board, philanthropic dollars flooded the campaign of Sarah Usdin, N.S.N.O.’s founder, who was running for a seat on the board. (At the time, the school board controlled only six traditional public schools and twelve charter schools, while the R.S.D. controlled the rest.) Usdin garnered $260,000, with 42 percent of her campaign war chest coming from out-of-state donors, including Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, who was on the board of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a major early N.S.N.O. funder. Other contributors included John Arnold, a former commodities trader for Enron, the disgraced and bankrupt energy-trading firm, and Reed Hastings, the cofounder of Netflix. Having outspent her opponents more than five to one, Usdin won handily.

The New Orleans school-board coup presaged high-stakes battles for control of school districts nationwide. Two of Usdin’s backers—Hastings and Arnold—went on to launch the City Fund, a $200 million effort to spread the New Orleans portfolio model to forty cities across the country. With Neerav Kingsland, an erstwhile head of N.S.N.O., as its managing director, the City Fund is building on familiar alliances and strategies.

One of the City Fund’s first beneficiaries was an Indianapolis-based gatekeeper called the Mind Trust, which had raised $80 million from philanthropies and had national ambitions. In Indianapolis, the Mind Trust helped take over the local school board; today, close to half of all children in the city attend charters or district schools with charter-like independence.

With the help of Gates funding, Mind Trust created a nationwide network of local gatekeepers and like-minded organizations to advance the education-reform agenda. The vehicle for this plan was Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (C.E.E.-Trust)—later renamed Education Cities, though that moniker is now also defunct—which recently boasted thirty-two member organizations in twenty-five cities.

C.E.E.-Trust’s role in Kansas City illustrates the toll that portfolio districts can have on midsize cities. Missouri passed charter legislation in 1998, following a failed court-ordered desegregation plan that had poured $2 billion into Kansas City magnet schools. Rapid charter expansion helped drain the district’s coffers and contributed to a financial crisis, school closures, and depressed test scores. The Kansas City school district lost its accreditation and faced three takeover attempts.

In 2013, local philanthropists helped fund a government study to examine the advisability of a state takeover. The study contract went to C.E.E.-Trust, which recommended a takeover and the establishment of a portfolio system. But the report triggered an overwhelming backlash from the community, as well as a “blistering state audit,” which described a rigged bidding process that was, according to the Kansas City Star, “favorable to C.E.E.-Trust.”

C.E.E.-Trust was effectively banished, but three years later another group with similar goals—and support from the same local philanthropies, as well as from the Walton Family Foundation—came to town. SchoolSmartKC, a member of the former Education Cities—itself the rebranded C.E.E.-Trust—backed many of the same policies as its discredited predecessor. One difference: the new gatekeeper had spent a year courting the community.

In fact, Kansas City public schools were doing far better than the C.E.E.-Trust report suggested and are expected to regain accreditation. But the district’s long-term finances remain precarious, in large part because of its high number of charters. Because Kansas City has around twenty charter operators running forty schools, in addition to thirty-eight district schools, the costs of transportation, operations, and administration are more than double what they are in nearby Springfield, a Missouri district with roughly the same number of students spread over a larger geographic area. “You have twenty-three central-office administration setups versus one in Springfield,” explains Jennifer Wolfsie, a member of the school board, referring to the charter operators and the district. “We have over four hundred million dollars in deferred maintenance.”

According to Wolfsie, though a spate of school closings during the past decade has stabilized the “fragmented” K–12 landscape, the school board has rolled out a novel effort to forge “financial and operational” partnerships with the charters to reduce costs and better serve students, and to prevent the district from eventually falling off “a financial and operational cliff.” Significantly, the district is trying to spark a public dialogue that will lead to a collaborative approach to the administration of all Kansas City schools. Still, Wolfsie worries that restoring the health of the entire system is antithetical to a market environment, which “does not prioritize the public good.”

The first day of school at Morris Jeff Community School, New Orleans, August 2019 © David Grunfeld/Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate

The first day of school at Morris Jeff Community School, New Orleans, August 2019 © David Grunfeld/Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate

For philanthropists, a chief appeal of gatekeeper organizations such as Education Cities is that they allow education reformers to get around democratically elected school boards and city officials. When the mayor changes, the city council changes, new board members are elected, these independent operators remain, explained John Arnold.

Most of the top education philanthropists aim both to create a charter-school infrastructure that is impervious to democratic control and to elect charter-friendly local officials. No single philanthropist has gone further to realize that goal than Eli Broad, a Los Angeles housing and insurance tycoon.

Initially, Broad’s education ventures focused on the Broad Academy, which trains business executives and other non-educators as school superintendents and K–12 administrators, positions from which they would be well placed to implement his education-reform agenda. In 2011, John Deasy, a graduate of the Broad Academy and a former deputy director of the Gates Foundation’s education division, became superintendent of the Los Angeles school district. Deasy was brought in with the expectation that he would grow the charter sector, which educates about one in five Los Angeles students, but he was forced to resign in 2014 for using construction-bond funds to buy iPads for students. Following his resignation, Deasy went to work for the Broad Foundation.

Not long after, the Los Angeles Times posted a forty-four-page memo outlining an ambitious $490 million initiative spearheaded by the Broad Foundation to more than double the number of local charter schools, to over five hundred. The city already enrolled more kids in charter schools than any other in the country, and the plan threatened to “push the nation’s second-largest school system into insolvency,” according to the Times.

Broad’s memo included a list of about two dozen philanthropies that could be relied on to help fund the effort, including the Gates and Walton foundations, which were identified as having given $33 million and $65 million, respectively, to charters.

The Broad Foundation also mounted a campaign to win control of the Los Angeles school board by defeating Steve Zimmer, a former teacher who was viewed as independent of special interests. Although its first effort was unsuccessful, Broad mounted another campaign, in 2017, which became one of the most expensive, and most negative, school-board races in the country. The reformers spent $14 million—over half of it to unseat Zimmer and to elect Nick Melvoin, a charter-school advocate who once called for “a hostile takeover” of the Los Angeles school district.

A year later, Broad helped select another superintendent, Austin Beutner, a former investment banker with no education experience. However, Beutner’s ambitious plans for “reimagining” K–12 education in Los Angeles ran up against a growing backlash to charter-school proliferation and years of disinvestment in urban schools, as well as a string of leaked documents showing Beutner’s close ties to the philanthropists, some of whom continue to scheme “to ‘take back’ the Board of Education and the mayor’s office, develop a lawsuit against the school district and attack the local teachers union,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Another leaked document revealed that Beutner had hired a consulting firm financed by Broad and other philanthropies to help devise a restructuring strategy for the Los Angeles school district. The firm, Kitamba, had previously helped implement the portfolio system in New Orleans and in Newark, New Jersey, where a controversial $200 million reform plan was funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and led by then-mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie. Although state takeovers generally do not improve educational outcomes, they have become a popular strategy, especially among Republican governors, to undermine African-American power in cities from New Orleans to Newark, according to Domingo Morel of Rutgers University.

California had had enough turmoil. The Golden State had once exceeded the national average in per-pupil spending, but both funding and school quality have declined over the past few decades, a process that started with the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which slashed local property taxes and made districts more dependent on state funding.

Charter-school growth further eroded the finances of state school districts. Los Angeles lost about $500 million per year to charters, while Oakland public schools lost $57 million, according to a new study by Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center. Class sizes ballooned, school infrastructure crumbled, and funds for everything from counseling to technology were slashed, even as the number of high-poverty public schools increased.

In January 2019, an estimated thirty thousand Los Angeles teachers and other school personnel took to the picket lines in the city’s first teachers’ strike in thirty years. Their demands included a moratorium on charter expansion. The strike was widely supported by Angelenos.

Last May, in another school-board race, a candidate favored by the teachers’ union won a landslide victory against a Broad-backed opponent, ending, at least for a time, Broad’s control over the board. (Eli Broad stepped away from “day-to-day duties” at his foundation in 2017.)

At the state level, the reformers also suffered setbacks. Gavin Newsom became governor in 2019, having defeated the more charter-friendly Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, and ending over twenty-five years of unmitigated gubernatorial support for charter schools. A union-backed candidate for the state’s school superintendency also edged out a rival who was backed by the charter industry in a high-stakes, $60 million race. One of Newsom’s first actions in office was to sign a transparency law designed to require charter schools to abide by open-meeting and conflict-of-interest rules—legislation that had been opposed by his predecessor, Jerry Brown. The state also convened a task force to consider the fiscal impact of charter schools on public school districts. Public schools might get their single greatest boost if a 2020 ballot initiative aimed at scaling back property-tax protections for commercial properties—now covered by Proposition 13—passes.

What happens in California often augurs nationwide trends. Newsom recently backed new legislation that would grant local school boards more authority to reject new charter-school applications and to require teachers in charters to hold the same credentials as those in traditional public schools. If the new rules pass the state legislature, the battle between charter and union forces is likely to heat up.

The original charter-school ideal envisioned a place for community-based, teacher-driven innovation. Instead, the charter movement has come to reflect the business values of its philanthropic backers: many charter schools in New Orleans and elsewhere are more McDonald’s than artisanal eatery. Like fast-food chains, KIPP and other charter-management organizations often rely on cheap, transient labor, much of it supplied by Teach for America, which gives recent college graduates only five weeks of training before placing them in schools. Many C.M.O.s mimic KIPP’s strict-discipline, test-prep-focused educational menu.

As criticism has grown in recent years, KIPP has acknowledged problems with its disciplinary culture. Meanwhile, N.S.N.O. said in a report that it has shifted to focus on “expansion and replication of existing, proven operators” instead of completely new schools. KIPP, for example, will take over the high school that was beset by a grade-fixing scandal this summer.

The New Orleans model “frames choice very narrowly,” says Abram Himelstein, an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans whose daughter attended Cypress Academy. “I had a fairly open mind about charters, but I’ve come to see how pernicious and dangerous they are to community.”

For the first decade of the New Orleans charter experiment, there were few real choices among nonselective schools, as look-alike charter-management organizations were favored by the city’s gatekeepers and the nation’s big philanthropies. Cypress was among a small handful of independent charters that were, against tremendous odds, trying to provide families with alternatives.

Then, in 2016, when the Louisiana legislature returned control of the city’s Recovery School District charter schools to the Orleans Parish School Board, some hoped that charters would become more responsive to local demands. In what would have been an unthinkable scene just a few years earlier, families crowded school board meetings, protesting several school closures and demanding a greater say in decision-making—but to no avail. (The district has recently been renamed NOLA Public Schools.)

The struggle over Cypress Academy became a flash point. For Himelstein, Cypress’s predicament exemplified the failed promise of school choice. “Parent power is much more amplified through community groups,” he said. When you close a school, you are effectively breaking up a community, and “you are breaking the power of parent choice.”

In response to the May announcement of Cypress’s closing, families and other community members sent a letter to both the charter-school and district boards:

The message you are sending is that smaller schools like Cypress, that do the right thing—that provide real services to special needs students, that work to have inclusive classrooms, that work in good faith to create an environment that will effectively educate and serve all its students—will not survive.

To assuage Cypress families, Lewis promised to run the school for two years, beginning with the 2018–19 school year. In the ensuing months, however, teachers found other jobs, and many children transferred to new schools. This past November, Lewis reneged on his promise, citing declining enrollment, and this spring Cypress was closed for good.

New Orleans remains a place where many charters still do not serve high-need students well, and where an innovative school like Cypress, which did, cannot survive. The community has little power to address either problem. As the letter from Cypress families explained, many had chosen the school “due to the ‘push’ of other schools that were unwilling or unable to meet their needs.” The letter concluded by asking:

What actions are the School Board [members] taking to ensure that all schools under its supervision have the resources needed and the willingness to address the needs of all Orleans Parish students, regardless of ability?

That’s a question education reformers and their philanthropic backers have yet to answer, even as they bring the portfolio model to ever more cities across the country.

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is the author of After the Education Wars and is the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York.

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