Published Online: November 23, 2005

La. Lawmakers OK Plan to Give State Control of Most New Orleans Schools

The Louisiana legislature has voted overwhelmingly to hand control of most New Orleans public schools to the state, a major outcome of a wide-ranging special session that ended Nov. 22. The measure was a top priority of Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco during the session, which began Nov. 6 and dealt with issues raised by the devastation Hurricanes Katrina and Rita brought to the state.

The takeover plan was approved 89-14 in the House on the final day of the session. One day earlier, the Senate, by a vote of 33-4, backed the legislation, which the governor was expected to sign.

“Families won’t come back without good public schools,” Gov. Blanco, a Democrat, said at a Nov. 22 press conference, according to The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans. “The state will redesign the schools as an overdue gift to our children.”

During the session, state lawmakers also approved revisions to state K-12 funding that would cut overall aid by more than $63 million in the aftermath of the hurricanes, which have leveled a heavy blow to state revenues. School systems that have seen a mass exodus of students because of the storms, especially New Orleans’, would face big cuts in state aid, while those taking in displaced students would get more under the plan.

Plans for the New Orleans schools subject to state takeover under the legislation are just beginning to emerge. Louisiana is expected to allow some of them to be run by outside groups as charter schools, while others might be run directly by the state. Either way, most New Orleans schools won’t be reopening any time soon, with so few residents in the city.

State officials have signaled that in the short term, they would allow some public schools in New Orleans subject to state takeover to reopen this school year under charters already granted by the New Orleans district. For instance, the district recently granted several charters to the Algiers Charter Schools Association that would be allowed to go forward. State officials say they would assess those charter schools at the end of this academic year to decide whether to allow them to continue in that framework.

In the longer term, the state education agency will work with outside groups to devise plans for the New Orleans schools.

“The next step in this process will focus on gaining input from the citizens of New Orleans,” state Superintendent of Education Cecil J. Picard said in a Nov. 23 statement. “We plan to create an advisory committee that will work closely with other recovery organizations such as Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring Back New Orleans and Governor Blanco’s Louisiana Recovery Authority to ensure that schools are opened in areas where the city is repopulated.”

He added, “We have six months to develop a comprehensive plan and present it to the [state] board of elementary and secondary education, and that will take a lot of focus and determination.”

‘This Is Tyranny’

In calling for the special session, Gov. Blanco highlighted her plan for New Orleans schools, saying that out of the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina came a “golden opportunity for rebirth.”

Although designed primarily for New Orleans, her plan as originally announced was not aimed exclusively at that district. But lawmakers have written the legislation to make clear that it would affect only New Orleans schools.

That district, which had 65,000 students last school year, was declared in “academic crisis” in 2004. It has long been plagued by management, financial, and governance problems. A private crisis-management firm had been brought in to run the system’s operations even before Katrina hit in late August.

The state already has a takeover law, under which it had stripped the New Orleans district of control of five schools. They became part of the state’s so-called Recovery School District, and were turned over to outside organizations over the past two years to be run as charter schools.

The new legislation would make it far easier to take such action because it lowers the academic threshold. Any New Orleans school that is below the statewide average on test scores would face state takeover. Based on recent test data, 102 regular public schools, plus eight alternative ones, fit that category; 13 would stay under the local board’s authority, state officials said.

As lawmakers were meeting in the special session, the New Orleans school board decided Nov. 18 to reopen two of the district’s schools that local officials said did not fall under the criteria for takeover. One was slated to resume classes Nov. 28, while the second is to reopen in January.

While the takeover package won broad support in the legislature, the state’s two teachers’ unions were big critics.

“Politicians are taking advantage of a catastrophic tragedy to do things they never would have dared if the people of New Orleans were in their homes,” Steven Monaghan, the president of the 22,000-member Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said in a statement this month. “This is tyranny, pure and simple. We believe that no good can come of it.”

In an interview, Mr. Monaghan predicted that his group, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, would pursue legal action to block the takeover plan.

But Stephanie Desselle, a senior vice president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a Baton Rouge advocacy group, said the broad takeover plan was long overdue.

“We’ve waited way, way, way too long and lost way too many children out of that system,” she said.

Extra Aid for Displaced Students

One critical unknown is the size of the returning population, said Leslie R. Jacobs, a member of the state board of elementary and secondary education.

“I think that, if the population returns slowly, as many anticipate, the department of education would primarily charter schools [to outside organizations],” Ms. Jacobs said. “If there is a need to open a number of schools quickly, then the department of education is going to need to run them.”

In his statement, Mr. Picard said that based on enrollment projections and the planned reopening of two schools by the New Orleans school system, additional demand could be met this academic year by charter schools recently approved by the district school board, as well as by reopening three of the five New Orleans schools the state already had placed in the Recovery School District.

On the budget front, the legislature approved a plan for revising the state’s main program for providing K-12 aid. By law, the state school board proposes the so-called foundation budget; the legislature must approve or reject that plan but may not amend it.

Lawmakers said an initial version proposed by the board was too generous to New Orleans.

Under the final plan, the city school system would receive an estimated $94 million, compared with the $204 million it was slated to get this school year before Katrina.

At the same time, districts taking in displaced students would receive $1,250 per student.

State officials emphasized that they were expecting the federal government to kick in far more for systems enrolling hurricane-displaced students.

PHOTO: Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco prepares to address a joint session of the Louisiana legislature Nov. 6 at the start of a special session focused on hurricane recovery.
—File Photo by Ted Jackson/The Times-Picayune/AP-Pool

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