Post-Katrina, the Great New Orleans Charter Tryout

Long earlier than Sci Academy, a constitution faculty in New Orleans, had graduated its first senior class, the varsity was being heaped with accolades.

In September 2010, when Sci Academy was simply two years outdated, its 200 excited college students—then all freshmen and sophomores—filed into Greater St. Stephen Baptist church, subsequent door to the varsity. Together with native dignitaries, journalists, and a brass band, the scholars watched on jumbo screens because the leaders of six constitution faculties from across the nation appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. At the top of the present, they watched as Oprah handed every charter-school chief—together with Ben Marcovitz, Sci Academy’s founder—a $1 million test.

Sci Academy is a flagship constitution faculty and a mannequin of the brand new data-driven, business-infused strategy to schooling that has reached its apotheosis in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, schooling reformers swept away what remained of the normal public faculties in what had been one of many nation’s lowest-performing districts. In their place, charters promised alternative and elevated accountability. More than 75 p.c of New Orleans children landed in faculties managed by the so-called Recovery School District, which was closely dominated by constitution faculties.

“This transformation of the New Orleans educational system may turn out to be the most significant national development in education since desegregation,” wrote Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, town’s main venture-philanthropy group incubating native constitution faculties, a yr in the past. “New Orleans students have access to educational opportunities that are far superior to any in recent memory.”

But eight years after Hurricane Katrina, there’s proof that the image is way extra difficult. Seventy-nine p.c of RSD charters are nonetheless rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education. (To make sure, some constitution operators argue that the grading system in Louisiana, which retains shifting the bar upward, does not sufficiently seize the enhancements faculties have achieved.) Sci is one among two RSD excessive faculties to earn a B; there are not any A-rated open-admission faculties. In a college system with about 42,000 largely poor African-American children, yearly 1000’s are out of faculty at any given time—as a result of they’re on suspension, have dropped out, or are incarcerated. Even at profitable faculties, such because the extremely regarded Sci Academy, giant numbers of scholars by no means make it to commencement, and others are unlikely to make it by school.

Figuring out what has taken place within the New Orleans faculties is not only a matter of curiosity to native residents. From cities like New York to cities like Muskegon Heights, Michigan, market-style reforms have been broadly touted as the reply to America’s academic woes. (A latest editorial within the St. Louis Post-Dispatch referred to as for native schooling reformers to “adopt the Louisiana model.”) New Orleans tells us rather a lot about what these reforms appear to be in observe. And the present actuality of town’s faculties ought to be sufficient to provide pause to even essentially the most passionate constitution supporters.

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Sci is one among two RSD excessive faculties to earn a B; there are not any A-rated open-admission faculties in New Orleans.

WITH ITS chain-link fence and campus of modular buildings—the results of a unbroken submit–Hurricane Katrina constructing scarcity—Sci Academy does not look very like a mannequin faculty. Freshmen, carrying the polo shirts and khakis of the varsity uniform, are required to stroll alongside straight crimson traces that snake by the varsity’s breezeways. Placards bearing slogans, similar to “No Short Cuts; No Excuses” and “Go Above and Beyond,” cling overhead.

Everything at Sci Academy is fastidiously choreographed to keep up self-discipline and a laserlike give attention to the varsity’s principal mission, which is to get each scholar into school. Each morning, at 8 a.m., the academics, virtually all white and of their 20s, collect for a rousing thigh-slapping, hand-clapping, rap-chanting employees revival assembly, the start of what is going to be, for many, a 14- to 16-hour workday. Students arrive a half hour later, and if requested “Why are you here?” and “What will it take?” are anticipated to reply “To learn,” adopted by a recitation of the varsity’s six core values: “achievement, respect, responsibility, perseverance, teamwork, and enthusiasm.”

Both curriculum and conduct are meticulously scripted. As children file into class, a instructor fingers them their “entry ticket,” a survey that helps decide how a lot college students retained from the earlier class. An “exit ticket” distributed on the finish of every class establishes how a lot children have absorbed. Information from the exit tickets, in addition to attendance, demerits for dangerous conduct, and “Sci bucks” for good conduct, are keyed into the Sci software program system by academics each night time to assist monitor each scholar and instructor efficiency.

After the storm, the state fired town’s unionized academics, who have been largely middle-aged African-Americans, an motion that has been challenged in courtroom. While just a few faculties have employed again academics who labored within the pre-Katrina faculties, town now depends closely on inexperienced educators—largely younger, white, and from out of city—who’re keen, a minimum of within the brief run, to place in grueling hours. But at many faculties, together with Sci Academy, loads of academics final for lower than two years. In New Orleans, academics with certifications from Teach for America quantity near 400, 5 instances the extent just a few years in the past. Within the RSD, in 2011, 42 p.c of academics had lower than three years of expertise; 22 p.c have spent only one yr or much less within the classroom, in keeping with “The State of Public Education in New Orleans,” a 2012 report by the pro-charter Cowen Institute at Tulane University.

In half to assist with this lack of expertise, constitution faculties practice academics in extremely regimented routines that assist them hold management of their school rooms. The metropolis’s charter-school advocates argue that within the aftermath of the storm, when constitution operators needed to scale up shortly, they wanted to start out with fundamentals: first order and safety, then talent constructing. “Kids expect high school to be dangerous. They come to school with their backs up,” explains Sci Academy’s Marcovitz, a graduate of the elite Maret faculty in Washington, D.C., and Yale University. He says the routines—that are borrowed from strategies pioneered by KIPP, a nationwide constitution chain that additionally operates faculties in New Orleans—are supposed to maintain college students centered and feeling secure.

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The metropolis now depends closely on inexperienced educators—largely younger, white, and from out of city—who’re keen, a minimum of within the brief run, to place in grueling hours.
Maile Lani Photography/FirstLine Schools

In one English class final fall, a instructor who had been at Sci for a few yr held forth on the high quality factors of grammar, together with the refined distinction between modal and auxiliary verbs. As just a few heads drifted downward, she employed a preferred charter-school administration routine to carry the category’s consideration. “SPARK check!” she referred to as. The acronym stands for sit straight; pencil to paper (or place fingers folded in entrance); ask and reply questions; respect; and hold monitoring the speaker.

“Heads up, sit straight—15 seconds to go,” she stated, making an attempt to get her college students’ consideration.

“All scholars please raise your homework in THREE, TWO, ONE. We need to set a goal around homework completion. I only see about one third complete homework.”

It’s a great distance from town’s charter-school roots. In the Nineteen Nineties, town’s first constitution faculty, New Orleans Charter Middle School, was constructed on a progressive curriculum that used experiential tasks and electives, similar to bicycle restore and African dance, to foster a love of studying. The faculty turned essentially the most extremely rated nonselective faculty within the metropolis earlier than it was devastated throughout Hurricane Katrina. But whereas its founders went on to create FirstLine, now one of many main constitution operators in New Orleans, the progressive roots of the constitution motion have been swamped by the brand new realities of a aggressive constitution market.

Now, pushed by each authorities coverage and philanthropic funding—which rewards faculties for getting ready college students for school and penalizes people who do not—most constitution excessive faculties in New Orleans describe themselves as “college prep.” This could appear an admirable aim. But in a college system the place the variety of eighth graders who handed the end-of-course checks required to get into highschool has, in keeping with the Cowen Institute, just about stagnated at about 60 p.c, the push towards school leaves behind lots of the most deprived children, who already face huge hurdles due to poverty, parental abandonment, and one of many highest charges of gun violence within the nation. For a few of these college students, school will not be essentially a practical aim.

Of course, New Orleans had been a troubled faculty district lengthy earlier than Katrina. While faculties have been enhancing earlier than the storm, constitution advocates level to a sooner price of enchancment within the years since. Yet pre- and post-Katrina comparisons are troublesome, largely due to a surge in funding for charters post-Katrina. (Andre Perry, an skilled on schooling who ran a charter-school community in New Orleans, and Michael Schwam-Baird, an schooling researcher, estimate that per-pupil funding within the 2006–07 and 2007–08 faculty years was about double what it had been within the two years instantly previous the hurricane and 50 to one hundred pc higher than it was for the remainder of Louisiana throughout the identical interval.)

One simple actuality is that negotiating the brand new charter-dominated system has been difficult for college students; it additionally has favored those that have essentially the most parental assist. The luckiest are college students like Eddie Barnes, a star at Sci Academy, whose mom was capable of navigate the extremely complicated software course of that, particularly within the early years of the RSD, stumped many dad and mom. (Part of what makes the New Orleans faculty system so difficult is that it’s basically two methods: the smaller, high-performing, largely selective faculties, which have been by no means taken over by the state—although many have been transformed to charters—and the 60 or so faculties throughout the RSD.)

Like most of his classmates, Eddie got here to Sci Academy after a traumatic post-Katrina odyssey that started when he was 11 and fled town along with his dad and mom and youthful brothers, first for Texas and, ultimately, Georgia. When Eddie’s mom, Anya Barnes, determined to return to New Orleans in 2008, her husband, the daddy of her two youngest sons, did not be part of her. So, the household returned to New Orleans fatherless, arriving three months after the beginning of Eddie’s freshman yr. That was through the chaotic first years of the RSD, when dad and mom needed to apply to each constitution faculty individually, which led to widespread allegations that faculties cherry-picked their college students. (Last yr the RSD instituted a streamlined software course of.)

Eddie and his mom made the rounds of the few RSD faculties that also had openings and ultimately discovered their strategy to Sci Academy, which had simply enrolled its top notch. (The two different faculties Eddie tried have since been closed or taken over.) Anya Barnes, who had began school however by no means completed, was “inspired by Sci” and its college-prep mission. Eddie, in flip, was impressed by his mom and, three years later, wrote his school essay concerning the function she had performed in his tutorial achievements.

In faculty, Eddie was a category chief. At 160 kilos and 5 toes 8 inches, he turned captain of the fledgling basketball and soccer groups. He received Mr. Sci Academy, an award given to the coed who exemplifies the cooperative values of the varsity. He was voted promenade king. And he excelled academically: in his junior yr, Eddie’s standardized check scores met the testing necessities for a scholarship to a Louisiana state faculty, in addition to for a school journey to the East Coast that Sci’s college-placement officer was organizing.

By the time Eddie and his classmates have been able to graduate within the spring of 2012, the category appeared to supply vindication not just for the varsity’s no-excuses college-prep strategy, however for all the New Orleans constitution mannequin. Almost all of the graduating seniors at Sci Academy—near 95 p.c—had been accepted at school. Eddie and a half dozen of his classmates could be returning to the East Coast, the place they’d received scholarships to attend faculties like Middlebury, Wesleyan, Amherst, and Bard.

Yet, the outcomes weren’t essentially all they appeared—for both the Sci Academy children who received school acceptances or the youngsters who by no means made it to commencement.

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At many faculties, together with Sci Academy, loads of academics final for lower than two years.
Sci Academy

DURING THE summer time of 2010, Sci Academy founder Ben Marcovitz recruited Allie Levey, an assistant dean of admissions at Wesleyan University, to be Sci’s school counselor and to ensure his graduates would get into school. The concept, says Levey, who was 25 on the time, was for him to turn out to be a type of “double agent” who knew the ins and outs of admissions at elite faculties, a course of he may assist high Sci Academy college students navigate.

Like Marcovitz, Levey had attended a D.C.-area non-public faculty and an elite school—Sidwell Friends and Wesleyan, in Levey’s case. Marcovitz, says Levey, “wants this to be like a group of people who believe.”

Levey, boyish and intense, purchased into the Sci Academy strategy. At morning conferences, he may at all times be seen main fellow college members within the motivational chants and rallying college students. But the duty was daunting from the beginning. “I’ll never forget the first time they showed me the spreadsheet of the kids’ GPAs and ACT scores going into senior year,” says Levey. “I was like, there’s no way.” The common ACT rating was 17, effectively beneath the cutoff for a state scholarship, which was 20, in 2012, out of a doable 36. Levey says he was sure he had taken on an unimaginable process.

But Levey and Marcovitz have been decided. Levey organized school journeys, mentored the seniors, and labored the telephones to his former college-admissions colleagues. Meanwhile, Sci Academy pulled out the stops when it got here to standardized checks. In the spring, lessons have been frequently suspended for added learning. Seniors who scored beneath 20 on their ACT spent three weeks being tutored by Alex Gershanik, the native “test-prep guru,” at a price, to Sci Academy, of $1,000 per scholar.

By the time Sci Academy’s first senior class was about to graduate, Levey’s doubts have been deepening—about each the varsity’s college-for-all mission and the toll his work was having on his private life. By the next spring, lower than two years after becoming a member of Sci Academy, Levey determined to resign. “I believe every member of [the] school leadership team deeply in their hearts wants to make this sustainable,” stated Levey shortly earlier than submitting his resignation, visibly saddened. “I also know that that’s not possible right now.”

Indeed, behind Sci Academy’s spectacular college-acceptance price have been some troubling numbers. The faculty’s first graduating class was 37 p.c smaller than the identical class had been within the ninth grade—despite the fact that some college students got here to the varsity after freshman yr and crammed seats left vacant by departing college students. The attrition price has improved; the category of 2013 was 28 p.c smaller than it had been within the ninth grade. But Sci Academy’s out-of-school suspension price has been rising, reaching 49 p.c in 2012, the second highest within the metropolis and one cause children transferred to different faculties. Sci Academy says that its efforts to cut back suspensions by loosening some guidelines led to elevated violence, together with weapons on campus, which, in flip, led to a spike in suspensions.

Even children who make it by highschool and into school face hurdles. While the vast majority of Sci Academy’s graduates enrolled in four-year faculties within the fall of 2012, over 10 p.c had both dropped out or transferred to junior faculties inside six months of matriculating. (Marcovitz acknowledges that the varsity must each enhance scholar attrition and assist its graduates keep in school. Sci Academy not too long ago appointed “college captains,” who will be in contact with classmates and alert the varsity to any issues children are having in school.)

Another indisputable fact that troubled Levey was scholar debt: the typical Sci Academy scholar, if she or he completes school, will graduate with $22,000 to $27,000 in debt, in keeping with Levey, even when the coed is eligible for state or federal support. Meanwhile, college students who drop out will go away with 1000’s of {dollars} in loans. Says Levey: “A kid who is barely passing, but qualifies for a four-year college, who really doesn’t have any academic interests—why am I having them mark general studies on their college application, why? Or nursing or chemical engineering?”

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The progressive roots of the constitution motion have been swamped by the brand new realities of a aggressive constitution market.
Maile Lani Photography/FirstLine Schools

Take the case of a scholar named Trevon, who, earlier than enrolling at Sci Academy in his senior yr, attended two different New Orleans constitution excessive faculties. The first declined to reenroll him in his sophomore yr. The second was, by most accounts, a chaotic failure and closed after his junior yr. Trevon fell behind a grade degree and did not study to jot down a analysis paper till late in his senior yr. As not too long ago as final spring, Trevon wasn’t certain school was for him; he was considering of enlisting within the Army as a substitute.

Encouraged by Sci Academy’s college-prep tradition and after months of check prep, together with a stint with the test-prep guru, Trevon eked out an 18 on his ACT—not sufficient for a state scholarship. But with a scholar mortgage, Trevon lastly determined to enroll at Southern University at New Orleans for this fall. Even although the faculty has one of many nation’s lowest commencement charges—8 p.c in 2009—Levey steered him and a number of other classmates to SUNO as a result of it’s “cheap,” as Levey says; with work-study and dwelling at dwelling, he must take out not more than $1,000 or so per yr in loans.

A Sci Academy administrator helped him register and decide a significant—entrepreneurship—however two weeks into the autumn semester, Trevon, not sure how one can navigate an issue along with his scholar loans, had neither bought his books nor accessed Blackboard, the web portal the place professors submit class supplies.

THERE IS no plan B within the college-for-all constitution universe, partially as a result of each the state’s accountability methods and philanthropists’ expectations are based mostly on how profitable the faculties are in qualifying children for school.

Louisiana’s faculty grading system rewards these whose college students graduate in 4 years and rating effectively on college-entry checks such because the ACT and advanced-placement checks. It penalizes faculties—by giving them decrease grades—if college students take longer to graduate or carry out poorly on the college-placement checks. Schools usually are reviewed each 5 years, however will be closed down after three if they don’t meet the constitution’s objectives. In the 2010–11 faculty yr alone, 10 New Orleans faculties have been closed or taken over, in keeping with Research on Reforms, a neighborhood analysis and advocacy group. The course of left a whole bunch of youngsters in ninth to twelfth grades scrambling to seek out area at a brand new faculty.

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Pre- and post-Katrina comparisons are troublesome, largely due to a surge in funding for charters post-Katrina.
Sci Academy

Paradoxically, as New Orleans encourages present charters to take during the last of the faculties the RSD straight runs, the constitution system is lastly being compelled to confront the failings in its one-size-fits-all college-prep mannequin. Some of town’s constitution faculties have begun experimenting with options, like vocational packages and so-called various faculties designed particularly to assist college students who’ve struggled in, or dropped out of, faculty. This spring, John White, Louisiana’s superintendent of schooling, in a notable departure from the state’s college-for-all mantra, unveiled a proposal to revamp highschool diplomas by making a vocational monitor that might qualify graduates for technical careers. Although Louisiana already has a “career diploma,” it’s broadly seen as a dead-end certification, as a result of it neither prepares college students for school nor supplies them with specialised coaching.

But for these experiments to work, the incentives must change. Under the present accountability standards, various faculties will at all times rating an F and can ultimately be closed, argues Elizabeth Ostberg, former head of human assets at FirstLine and founding father of the NET, a brand new various faculty that acquired an F on its first 2012–13 report card.

“Why would you do this if you care about your school’s accountability score?” asks Jay Altman, the CEO of FirstLine, who gave the NET area at one among his faculties throughout its first yr of operation and is now piloting a vocational program as a part of a takeover of Joseph S. Clark, a historic however failing highschool.

Moreover, it’s broadly believed that non-public donors need to see as many college students as doable go to varsity—an comprehensible inclination, however one which is not useful for all children. (Private donors can equal one third of a constitution faculty’s funds: for Sci Academy, in 2011, $1.3 million of its $3.9 million funds got here from non-public donations.) Ostberg, as an example, is satisfied that her faculty was initially denied funding by a significant basis as a result of the varsity’s mission didn’t emphasize school prep. It lastly acquired the cash, she says, partially by convincing the inspiration that if New Orleans is to have a “successful education system,” it has to “address” the youngsters who aren’t going to varsity. “If we build great alternative schools, our college-prep schools will be better,” she says.

Many college students are nonetheless falling by the cracks. In 2010, the yr Ostberg acquired her constitution for the NET, an estimated 4,000 teenagers, about 10 p.c of town’s total scholar inhabitants, weren’t at school. (The numbers are onerous to pin down. While a Louisiana state report that very same yr put the dropout price at 5.7 p.c, a 2013 report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor discovered that the state’s DOE “no longer conducts on-site audits or reviews that help ensure the electronic data in its systems is accurate.”)

The premise of the New Orleans charter-school experiment is that charters can educate all youngsters. However, the expertise of youngsters like Lawrence Melrose, one other Sci Academy scholar, doesn’t assist that declare. Now 18, Lawrence’s life is a testomony to each excessive ranges of social dysfunction, together with poverty and violence, and the lack of some constitution faculties to fulfill the wants of essentially the most deprived children.

It is difficult to know when Lawrence’s life started to spin uncontrolled. It could have been when his grandmother who raised him was recognized with most cancers and he started shuttling backwards and forwards between Georgia, the place the household moved after Hurricane Katrina, and his great-uncle Shelton Joseph’s home in New Orleans. It could have been throughout a basketball recreation, close to his great-uncle’s home, on a scorching August day of his 14th yr, when one other child shot him within the again, almost killing him. Or it could have been throughout his dizzying spin by half a dozen struggling RSD faculties within the two years earlier than he enrolled at Sci Academy.

During the weeks Lawrence spent at Children’s Hospital recovering from his gunshot wound, a report on his neuropsychological state concluded that Lawrence “appears to have the skills necessary to be a productive member of society,” but additionally that he ought to proceed to obtain “special-education services at the highest level possible.”

A yr later, in 2010, Lawrence enrolled as a freshman at Sci Academy; he had spent two years—with a number of suspensions and expulsions—within the New Orleans system. His first months at Sci Academy have been rocky. When the varsity celebrated Marcovitz’s look on The Oprah Winfrey Show on the church subsequent door, Lawrence was not there; he was saved again within the faculty’s workplace.

In 2010 Lawrence turned one among 10 plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center towards the Louisiana Department of Education, charging that town’s fragmented schooling system had resulted in “systemic failures to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to educational services and are protected from discrimination.” (The SPLC has since petitioned the courtroom to certify the case as a category motion swimsuit.)

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Have the pressures and incentive methods surrounding constitution faculties taken public schooling within the course we wish it to go?
Maile Lani Photography/FirstLine Schools

Of all of the New Orleans faculties he had attended, Sci Academy was the primary that had tried to grapple with Lawrence’s issues. However, with each RSD constitution faculty serving as its personal district and required to offer all providers to all children, Sci Academy apparently didn’t have the assets to fulfill all of Lawrence’s wants. The faculty ultimately concluded that he wanted an intensive remedy program, however was unable to seek out one for him; as a part of a statewide privatization effort that started just a few years in the past, Gov. Bobby Jindal had closed the final of the general public hospitals that supplied residential packages for adolescents with psychological disabilities.

Lawrence spent much less and fewer time in school. At 17, he was arrested for armed theft; repeatedly discovered incompetent to face trial, Lawrence spent a yr and a half in jail. He lastly pleaded responsible and agreed to a 10-year sentence, minus time already served.

On a latest Saturday morning, Lawrence sat behind a plexiglas barrier at Orleans Parish Prison, his jaw barely swollen after it was damaged in a jailhouse beating. Lawrence was carrying a cumbersome, sleeveless “suicide” smock that additionally lined a knife wound from one other incident within the jail. Lawrence is not actually a suicide threat, defined Chaseray Griffin, Lawrence’s SPLC advocate; placement on the suicide ward, the place the inmate’s garments are taken away, was his greatest likelihood of staying secure till he’s moved to a state penitentiary.

Although Lawrence has taken lessons in jail, he has not graduated. Yet, when the state of Louisiana calculates its dropout statistics, Lawrence and different incarcerated teenagers usually are not included.

It is tempting to have a look at Lawrence as an exception. But his case factors to issues not solely with the standard of particular person faculties in New Orleans, but additionally with authorities oversight and the inducement construction of constitution faculties. “State monitoring has virtually stopped,” says Margaret Lang, who retired final yr as director of intervention providers on the RSD. “The kids who get churned the most are those with the most disabilities and challenges.”

In New Orleans, critics argue that the stress to indicate excessive check scores and get children into school, mixed with the broad leeway given to constitution faculties to droop and expel college students, means the “difficult to teach” children have been successfully deserted. “New ideas on how to teach disruptive and unmotivated students have not emerged from charter schools,” expenses Barbara Ferguson, a former superintendent of public faculties in New Orleans and a founding father of Research on Reforms. “Whether the difficult-to-teach high school students are expelled by charter schools or whether they attended schools closed by the RSD, they are an outcast group, thrown into an abyss … Neither the RSD nor the state Department of Education tracks these students to determine if they ever enter another high school.”

But even for college students who do not fall by the cracks or get expelled, it bears asking: have the pressures and incentive methods surrounding constitution faculties taken public schooling within the course we wish it to go? Anthony Recasner, a associate in founding New Orleans Charter Middle School and FirstLine, is visibly torn between his hopes for the New Orleans constitution experiment and his disappointment within the distance that continues to be between immediately’s no-excuses charter-school tradition and the motion’s progressive roots. “Education should be a higher-order exploration,” says Recasner, a toddler psychologist who left FirstLine in 2011 to turn out to be CEO of Agenda for Children, a youngsters’s advocacy group. The typical constitution faculty in New Orleans “is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids,” says Recasner, who is among the few African-American constitution leaders in New Orleans; his personal expertise as a poor youngster raised by a single father or mother mirrors that of most college students within the constitution faculties. “Is that really,” he asks, “what we want for the nation’s poor children?”

This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund on the Nation Institute. It was additionally made doable by funding from the New World Foundation’s Civic Opportunities Initiative Network.

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