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Linda was on her way to lunch when her phone rang. It was her son Mark. He had gotten pulled from class and he didn't know why, but had been sitting in the office for more than an hour.
She called the school and was then transferred to the Bursar's office, only to find out that her son had been removed from class for some $75 of fees that were due at the beginning of the year.
Why, she wondered, wasn’t the school being more flexible and understanding? The administrators knew her household income qualified her son for free lunch. Why wouldn't they give her more time to pay?
What Linda was discovering—and what many Americans don't yet know either—is that even though discriminating against students based on income and class has been illegal for decades (and it’s been immoral forever), it is still happening every day in schools in New Orleans and across America.
In New Orleans, the discrimination is especially prevalent in charter schools because they have autonomy to charge whatever they want for fees. Many of these schools are already practicing some discrimination through selective admission by requiring student to show aptitude for a particular course of study such as art, science, or math. But many of these schools also discriminate on the basis of income with student fees "to cover everything from student insurance, to school publications, lab and art supplies, aptitude tests, and graduation costs," according to a 2011 report from The Lens. Some schools will charge up to $1200 in fees.
If you look on the schools’ websites you won't find the fees in a nice list of things your child will need. It is only after you register that you get hit with at least $900 in fees.
How do I know about these fees? My daughter attended a school that charged fees, and I have friends with children in that school and schools just like it. Parents typically will not say anything about the fees they are forced to pay until their child is out of the school.
My daughter, who attended Lusher charter school in New Orleans, could only get in because she had high test scores and good grades. That's what I mean when I say selective admissions. (Incidentally, in this kind of school, if your grades drop below a C you're not invited back!)
If you do not pay your full fees—or if you happen to be one of the outspoken advocate mothers who reminds the school that they are a public school and that your child is on reduced lunch so you won't be paying any fees—they will cut you off of Ed-line. Ed-line is the system schools use to deliver homework, projects, and extra-credit assignments. If you do not complete your homework and extra credit assignments you may well drop below a C and then not get invited back. I guess the message here is: you poor kids just pay your fees, or don’t come to this public charter school where we don't want poor kids anyway.
Maybe they see poor kids as just a financial risk?
In that 2011 report on school fees Jessica Williams reported that charter schools are run with an eye on the bottom line:
"Contrary to public impressions, the Cowen report found that charter schools actually collect and spend significantly less per capita—$11,416 collected, $11,195 spent—than the schools run directly by the Recovery School District ($16,514 collected, $16,117 spent) and the OPSB [Orleans Parish School Board] ($13,725 collected, $13,591 spent)."
Back to my friend Linda and her son Mark. Mark is being denied an education not because he didn't pay fees but because he was unable to pay all of his fees on the school's timeline.
Linda, like many other New Orleans parents, is facing these kinds of shady tactics around money. To pay the fees, some people will borrow money, big amounts of money, and keep borrowing to keep their kids in these schools. Most of the schools we're talking about are the best schools—the ones that people who could afford to pay private school tuition would choose to send their children to. And if their child's grades should start to slip, they may also pay for private tutoring. But for the parents who can't afford private tutoring, it will be suggested that the children just "work harder.” (In other words, stop being lazy and poor; if your parent cared about you they would find the money.)
If the schools were challenged on any of this, I'm sure they would bring up school records of children who were on free and reduced lunch but also graduated. I say to those children, bravo! I know they are likely very talented and smart, but also probably had parents who worked maybe two jobs, with grandmothers and godmothers chipping in.
I'm tired of hearing about the ones that made it DESPITE the odds.
No child should have to make it despite being discriminated against because they are poor in a public school, paid for by our tax dollars.
Ashana Bigard is a lifelong resident of New Orleans, mother of three, social justice organizer, and advocate for children and families in Louisiana. She is southcentral regional Progressive Education Fellow.