Charters, school choice debated in New Orleans protest

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By Jessica Williams, | The Times-Picayune
on May 18, 2015 at 4:12 PM

A New Orleans school choice conference began with a bang Monday (May 18) as community activists lined Loyola Avenue to protest both choice and post-Katrina changes in New Orleans public schools. An hour into the protest, activists with different views engaged in a shouting match.

The American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice are behind the conference, which runs through Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. Both groups support public charter schools and private school tuition vouchers, as does the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Black Alliance representatives also were present Monday.

Speaking against choice Monday were about a dozen parent advocates and representatives from The Dignity in Schools Campaign and Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. These groups oppose zero tolerance school discipline policies and measures that lead to children’s incarceration.

All of it shaped up as an example of education’s polarization, locally and nationally. While the conference sponsors point to charters and vouchers as needed options for low-income families trapped in low-performing school systems, critics argue that public resources should be reserved for conventional public school systems. They say privately run charters infringe on democracy, as charter school boards are typically self-selected instead of elected.

School choice critics wanted to share their views with conference attendees but said the $400 registration fee was too costly. So they protested outside.

“We would prefer that funding would be kept in the public school system,” organizer and parent Gina Womack said. Charters should be held more accountable, to ensure that children are fairly disciplined, she and others said.

Other protestors — who hailed from Oregon, New Jersey, Ohio and Mississippi — said they saw charters as a tool to weaken public education. “We believe in school choice, if it’s done in the right way. But if it’s run by the powers that be … we are not for that,” said Sheila Warren of Portland, Ore. Warren is part of information the Portland Parent Union.

When the discussion turned to New Orleans schools, Louisiana Black Alliance community outreach director Jamal Brown, former Black Alliance President Kenneth Campbell, local parent advocate Karran Harper Royal and other activists debated the merits of New Orleans’ post-Katrina school changes.

“I will tell you that I believe there are more opportunities for children of color now then there were before,” Brown said.

“But which children?” someone in the crowd shot back.

School choice debate on Loyola Avenue Former Black Alliance for Educational Options President Kenneth Campbell, Louisiana Director of Community Outreach Jamal Brown and parent advocate Karran Harper Royal debate school choice in front of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans Monday, May 18, 2015.

“Post-Katrina, there’s only one school that I would chose to send my child to,” Royal said. “For me, it’s not better.” That school, she later clarified, is the arts-based Homer A. Plessy Community School, started by St. Claude area parents.

Brown later said he was happy that the conversation — however heated — was had.

New Orleans reforms were set to be discussed at an afternoon conference panel. That panel was to include Louisiana Federation for Children President Ann Duplessis, former state Recovery School District Superintendent Robin Jarvis, state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Kira Orange Jones and former Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek.

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