Published Online: November 4, 2005
Published in Print: November 4, 2005, as Louisiana Eyes Plan To Let State Control New Orleans Schools

Louisiana Eyes Plan to Let State Control New Orleans Schools

Seeking to grasp what she called a “golden opportunity for rebirth” out of the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco asked the Louisiana legislature last week to embrace a plan that would give the state control of most New Orleans public schools.

The plan was to be taken up in a 17-day special legislative session—due to have started Nov. 6—that was called to deal with a range of matters linked to the devastation from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Gov. Blanco, a Democrat, said in a Nov. 3 press conference with state education leaders. “Now is the time to act, now is the time to think outside the box, and now is the time to turn a failing system into a model for the nation.”

In laying out the agenda for the special session, the governor said she wanted to use “the charter school model as one of the tools in our recovery efforts.” Her move came days after the New Orleans school board decided to convert 20 of the district’s schools to charter status. At least some of those schools would be transferred to state authority, under the governor’s plan.

State takeover of schools is not a new idea in Louisiana. Since last year, the state has already stripped the New Orleans district of control of five schools, which were then turned over to outside organizations to be run as charter schools. But the governor’s plan would make it far easier to take such action by lowering the academic threshold for takeover.

With so much uncertain about the repopulating of New Orleans, though, the scope of the plan in practical terms is hard to gauge. At least in the short term, it would seem likely to affect only a smattering of schools, even though the vast majority of New Orleans schools would be eligible for state takeover under criteria proposed last week.

That’s because only several thousand students—compared with 65,000 students last school year—have indicated they would attend New Orleans public schools this academic year, meaning most schools are unlikely to reopen. Most city residents were forced out by Hurricane Katrina in late August, and much of the city remains uninhabitable.

Starting From Scratch

Gov. Blanco announced her takeover plans in a Nov. 1 address to the legislature, but she offered more details two days later at the press conference, at which officials released new state-test data.

Overall, she said, the state had seen strong academic growth for most schools. But she lamented the weak performance in some places, especially New Orleans.

“I’m really saddened to see that many of our failing schools are still in New Orleans,” she said.

“We cannot afford to rebuild failing school systems,” added Cecil J. Picard, the state superintendent, at the Nov. 3 event. Echoing Ms. Blanco, he said: “This is a silver lining and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

While the plan is largely directed at New Orleans, it is not, by definition, specific to that system. Any district declared in academic “crisis” under state law would be subject to the plan. New Orleans received that designation in 2004. Based on last week’s test results, the 1,500-student St. Helena Parish school system also is now in academic crisis, and its schools, too, would be subject to takeover under the governor’s plan.

A district is deemed in academic crisis if half its schools are rated “academically unacceptable” under the state accountability system, or at least 30 schools fit that category.

In 2003, Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow the state to take over failing schools under certain conditions and put them into the state’s “recovery school district.”

In general, schools are eligible if they are rated “academically unacceptable” under the accountability program for four consecutive years.

The law allows the state education department to operate the schools, or to contract with a nonprofit organization to run them as charter schools.

The University of New Orleans, the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, and other groups were running the five schools now in state takeover before the storm.

Gov. Blanco’s plan would lower the academic threshold for schools to be subject to state takeover. If a district was labeled in academic crisis, any school that fell below the statewide average for school performance would enter the recovery district. Also, the governor’s plan would make such takeovers automatic, in contrast to existing state law, under which state board action is needed.

“Under this legislation, when a district like Orleans is identified as in crisis, the state will take responsibility for every school in that district below the state average,” Ms. Blanco said. “We will place them in the recovery district. … The state department would run those schools or find a provider with a proven track record.”

Leslie R. Jacobs, a member of the state school board and an architect of the state’s accountability system, praised the plan in an interview last week.

“We’ve been working with the failure of the New Orleans schools around the edges, and it’s time we did much more substantive intervention,” she said. “We have the opportunity to pick some of the best principals and teachers to go into these schools.”

‘180-Degree Turnaround’

Some key members of the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature said they welcomed the notion of expanding the state’s role in New Orleans schools, including Sen. Chris Ullo, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

“I think the overall legislature is really determined to do something with the New Orleans educational system,” said Mr. Ullo, a Democrat, before he had seen details of the governor’s plan. “I am so optimistic and so confident what’s going to happen here is a 180-degree turnaround from what we had.”

As to the idea of making the schools charter schools, he said: “I’m a fan of anything that would help turn this system around.”

Rep. Jeffery J. Arnold, a Democrat representing the Algiers section of New Orleans, said he would like the legislation to go further. Mr. Arnold had urged the governor to include all New Orleans schools in the takeover.

“Some of our delegation said, why stop with those,” he said of the low-performing schools, “and leave [the local board] with the good schools? ... Hopefully, in legislation, we can word it that they take them all over.”

The New Orleans school board, previously divided over whether to reopen schools under charters, voted 6-0 on Oct. 28 to open 20 charter schools, the first public schools that would reopen since Hurricane Katrina interrupted the school year. The vote put back on track a charter school effort that previously had been driven by four members of the board, with two members strongly opposed to the public but largely independent schools. ("New Orleans Board Backs Charters as Governor Calls for Stepped-Up State Role," Nov. 1, 2005.)

Mr. Picard, the state schools chief, said in an interview last week that any of the schools the local board authorized that met the takeover criteria in the governor’s plan, though, would revert to state control.

Based on test data released last week, 110 schools would be subject to takeover, while 13 would stay under the local board’s authority.

Details Unclear

Ms. Jacobs of the state school board said the fate of schools that would be taken over under the governor’s plan was not yet clear. All of them could become charter schools or the state could opt to run some itself.

“I don’t think it’s been the department of education’s desire to run schools,” she said. “The majority will be run by [outside] operators,” she predicted.

Ms. Jacobs guessed that fewer than 7,000 students might attend schools in New Orleans this school year.

Several sources said one motivation for Gov. Blanco’s plan was to tap into help from outside groups, including philanthropies such as the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, which have been talking with state officials.

“We have people coming from across the country, foundations, that want to help,” Mr. Picard said at the press conference.

The schools chief added in an interview that he expected the state could draw on a $20.9 million federal charter school grant to help reopen schools as charters.

State officials aren’t alone in their interest in that money. New Orleans school board President Torin Sanders said last week that officials there also saw reopening schools under charters as a way to bring funds from the federal charter grant to the financially struggling district.

On Oct. 28, the city’s school board approved one application, from a community group on the city’s less damaged West Bank, to run all 13 previously district-run schools there as charter schools.

That application, submitted by the Algiers Charter Schools Association, had been approved by the school board on Oct. 7. But the action was temporarily halted a week later by a judge, who voided the vote because the board had given insufficient public notice beforehand. By posting such notice later, the board was able to take a second vote on the issue.

The board on Oct. 28 also approved applications to run seven schools on the city’s more damaged East Bank as charters. Three would be run by a community group called the Treme Charter School Association, which had already been serving as a civic partner to one of the schools. The other four would be run by groups of parents and teachers who applied to convert each of the four schools to charters, Mr. Sanders said.

Outsiders Watching

Kati Haycock, the director of the Washington-based Education Trust, a research and advocacy group that has worked with Louisiana over the years, was cautious last week about the promise of the governor’s plans.

“I think it’s very important that the state move forward to assure that what gets put back is better than what was there before,” she said. “I don’t want to suggest that local folks are inept, because obviously on the staff in Orleans are some quite terrific teachers and principals. But it’s quite clear that there are a set of things that have gone on that have held that place down, and it’s really important to cut through that.”

Besides its academic woes, the city schools have been plagued by management and governance problems. The district has only an acting superintendent at present, and a private crisis-management firm had been brought in to run the district’s operations even before Hurricane Katrina hit.

Looking ahead, Ms. Haycock cited several challenges, including the physical devastation caused by the hurricane, which led to flooding in most of the city when levees were breached, and the loss of tax revenue facing the state and storm-damaged localities.

“The state’s in a terrible financial situation,” Ms. Haycock said. “Unless the federal government moves quickly, a lot of good people will have to go.”

Last week, the U.S. Senate approved a hurricane-relief package for schools.

Another issue, Ms. Haycock said, is: “Can folks be bold enough? Can you … both tap the best folks in Louisiana and the best folks outside of the state to build something terrific quickly?”

For her part, Ms. Haycock suggests that aggressive steps the state has taken previously to demand more school accountability give her hope.

“These are folks with a real track record, so I’m optimistic,” she said, “but there’s a lot of things stacked against them.”

Vol. 25, Issue 11, Pages 1,26

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