New Orleans Charter Schools Are Punishing Students for Being Poor
When a New Orleans charter school made headlines recently for kicking out two homeless students because they didn’t have the right uniforms, people were shocked. They shouldn’t have been. Suspending poor students for “non-compliance” when they can’t afford to buy the right shoes, pants or sweaters is standard operating procedure in our all-charter-school education system. More than a decade after Hurricane Katrina, poverty in the city is worse than ever, even as rents have doubled during the past decade. Yet students and their parents are routinely punished—even criminalized—just for being poor.
The first case I had like this was just a few years after Hurricane Katrina. A mother who was a homeless veteran contacted me because her son’s charter school suspended him repeatedly due to uniform violations. Fourteen and in the middle of a growth spurt, the boy's shirt kept coming untucked. That meant that he was out of compliance with the school’s dress code, but his mother couldn’t afford to buy him bigger shirts. I was convinced then that if this woman—a well-spoken, college-educated, US veteran—could just talk to school leaders and share her story, we could convince the school to make some kind of accommodation. We got nowhere. The student’s final suspension was for selling candy in order to raise the money to buy new shirts and shoes. He ended up being expelled.
At the time it made no sense to me. Why were this young man and his mother being punished so severely for being poor? In 2012, New Orleans centralized its school expulsion process to try to limit the number of students being forced out of their schools. Yet today, the practice of keeping students from attending school because of uniform violations is common across the city. I’ve seen little kids’ coats taken from them in the winter because they’re “out of compliance,” something that could get a parent charged with child endangerment. I’ve seen students sent home for having the wrong undershirts, something that should be no business of school administrators. And I’ve seen more students than I can count be punished or told they can’t come back for one reason: because their parents are poor.
Recently I was contacted by the mother of two young boys, aged seven and ten. She had just moved back to the city and was staying with someone. She was homeless, and she was searching for work, so she was jobless. The school required the students to wear solid black shoes, and when the boys showed up wearing tennis shoes with check marks on them, they were sent home. Their mother covered up the checks using a black marker, which she thought took care of the problem. The school said that wasn’t good enough. The kids had to have the right shoes. At this point the mother had zero income. She’d had to borrow the money in order to buy the “wrong” shoes for the boys. We brought all of this to the school’s attention. Their response was that unless the kids were in compliance, they couldn’t come back to school.
Other schools refuse to let students attend class if they’re “out of compliance.” One parent I helped worked at Walmart and lived paycheck to paycheck, struggling even to pay her rent. Her son was on free lunch, and the shoes that the school required cost $400 because he was a kid who happened to have size 15 feet. They kept him on in-school suspension for more than a month because that’s how long it took his mother to come up with the money to pay for the right shoes.
I often encounter school leaders who think that parents can afford to buy the required uniforms for their children but have the “wrong priorities.” Recently I advocated for a parent whose son and daughter attended a school that required different uniforms for boys and girls. The parent bought both of her kids the boys uniform—dark pants and a white shirt—because it was the cheapest option. The school said that that was unacceptable; the little girl needed to wear either a plaid skirt, which was $35, or a plaid jumper, which was $45. When the mom said she couldn’t afford that, administrators told her that her daughter couldn’t come to school until she had the right uniform. The administrator I met with on the mom’s behalf was convinced that the mother was “gaming the system.” I had to explain that the mother works, in fact she often has two jobs, one for a caterer and another at Walmart. Even that barely brings in enough money to pay the rent for the family’s one bedroom apartment.
These days, I’m encountering more and more situations where parents and students are being caught up in the criminal justice system because of these “compliance” issues I’ve just described. A student can’t attend school because he or she lacks the right uniform, but once children miss a certain number of a days, the state gets involved. Parents can be summoned to Truancy Court and fined. If a summons arrives and the parent has moved—something that’s very common in a city with high poverty and a severe shortage of affordable housing —a warrant is issued for their arrest. I’ve even seen parents held in contempt of court and sentenced to jail time because their children are missing school as a result of uniform violations.
When I question school leaders about these policies, I hear again and again that students need to learn compliance because there will be no excuses when they end up in the workforce. As I like to point out, there are jobs that don’t require uniforms. Also, federal law says that if your job requires you to wear a uniform, then the employer has to pay for it. The city’s “top” charters talk a lot about preparing kids for college, but I don’t know of any college anywhere that sends students home for wearing a brown belt instead of a black one. When I talk to administrators about these excessive and punitive uniform policies, I always ask them to tell me about the colleges for which they’re preparing students: “Tell me what they are so that I can make sure my children don’t apply there.”
In a high poverty city with an affordable housing crisis and schools that emphasize strict discipline and compliance, the stories I’ve shared are the norm. The question is ‘why?’ If a school’s student body is poor enough that 99% of the children receive free or reduced lunch, how is it OK to require parents to buy uniforms they can’t afford as a condition of school attendance? The statistics are out there in the open for anyone to see. The majority of students in New Orleans live below the poverty line. Rents in the city have doubled since Katrina, wages have barely risen, and the unemployment rate for Black men is 50%. That number, by the way, doesn’t even include the chronically unemployed. If you are a Black New Orleanian, finding work is a problem, especially work that pays any kind of decent wage.
Poor families in my city are being held to a standard they can’t afford to meet. That needs to change.