Published Online: November 11, 2005
Published in Print: November 1, 2005, as Crescent Wrench

Crescent Wrench

Nwe Orleans desperately wants to reopen its schools. The question is, how?

As schools in the suburbs begin to reopen, New Orleans’ own system remains in limbo. For years, the Crescent City’s district has been immensely troubled—both academically and managerially—and the devastation wrought by Katrina has led everyone from community leaders to U.S. congressmen to consider starting with a clean slate. “We’re not going to rebuild a failing system,” Louisiana superintendent of education Cecil Picard told Education Week, Teacher Magazine’s sister publication, in an e-mail. But change doesn’t come easily—or without controversy.

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Return to the main story, “Picking Up the Pieces”

In fact, plans to reopen the first 13 city schools were temporarily halted in mid-October by a district court judge, who called the school board’s hastily arranged vote to establish them as charters “a disguised back-door attempt to push through a pre-hurricane agenda.” School officials acknowledged that charters were under consideration for the city’s Algiers neighborhood long before Katrina struck. And the community group proposing them received support not only from city officials but also from their counterparts at the state level. The day of the vote, Louisiana’s governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, signed an executive order waiving key portions of the state’s charter law, including a requirement that the conversion of a school be approved by faculty and parents. The charter application was also designed to take advantage of a $20.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

But the proposed charters would be exempt from all district regulations, including those governing staffing, which prompted concern from the city’s American Federation of Teachers affiliate. Some charter advocates on the national level are also wary: Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, believes the city’s proposal lacks a larger framework to guide and support it.

Even after schools reopen in New Orleans, Katrina’s educational aftershocks will still be felt nationwide. Only a fraction of the city’s 60,000 students are expected to return this year, meaning that schools elsewhere will have to educate them—an opportunity, some believe, to demonstrate how school choice might work. Modeled on the education relief package proposed by President Bush, the $1.9 billion Hurricane Education Assistance Act introduced in Congress in early October would provide the host public schools as much as $7,500 for each displaced student. But the bill—still being debated at press time—also calls for $488 million for parents who want to send their children to secular or religious private schools, with the same $7,500 limit.

Federal education officials insist the payments would be one-time benefits, not vouchers. But according to Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, they’re more indicative of politics than constructive change. “The [Bush] administration,” he says, “is seeing an opportunity to put in an ideological proposal.”

Vol. 17, Issue 03, Page 1

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