New Orleans Board Backs Charters as Governor Calls for Stepped-Up State Role

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The New Orleans school board, previously deeply divided over whether to reopen schools as charter schools, has unanimously decided to expand and move ahead with its charter school plan.

At an Oct. 28 meeting, the board voted 6-0, with one member absent, to open 20 charter schools, the first public schools that would reopen since Hurricane Katrina interrupted the school year. The vote placed back on track a charter school effort that previously had been driven by four members of the board, with two members strongly opposed.

However, the vote came just before Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco made clear on Nov. 1 that she wants the state to take over New Orleans public schools, presumably by wresting control from the local board.

“[O]ut of the devastation comes a golden opportunity for rebirth,” the governor told state lawmakers in calling a 17-day special legislative session this month on a range of issues tied to the state’s recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which struck the Gulf Coast four weeks apart in August and September. “I propose that the state step in and assume responsibility for that city’s failing schools, using among other things, the charter school model as one of the tools in our recovery efforts.”

The school board approved one application, from a community group on the city’s less damaged West Bank, to run all 13 schools there as charter schools. That application, submitted by the Algiers Charter Schools Association, had been approved by the board on Oct. 7. But the action was temporarily halted a week later by a judge, who voided the vote because the board gave 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, said school board President Torin Sanders.

New requirements for the charter schools appear to have enabled board members to switch from opposition to support. In setting policy for charter schools, the panel decided that 20 percent of the students at each school would have to be eligible for free or reduced-priced meals, and 10 percent would have to be special education students.

In addition, charter school boards would be required to submit annual financial audits, done by a third party, to the school board. At least some of each school’s enrollment would have to be drawn from the immediate neighborhood, and alternative settings would have to be provided for students who were having discipline problems, Mr. Sanders said.

“Those things did allow me and others who had equity questions to support the idea,” he said.

Taking a charter school approach would serve two other purposes, Mr. Sanders said. It would take advantage of a $20.9 million federal charter school grant to Louisiana, which would bring additional funding into the financially struggling district. It also would be a pre-emptive move to try to keep some schools under the control of the local board as state lawmakers meet on the governor’s proposals.

The West Bank charter school application still requires the approval of the state board of elementary and secondary education. The East Bank schools do not, however, because of the type of charter school they applied to become under state law, according to Mr. Sanders.

The New Orleans teachers’ union threatened to sue to block the charter school plan. Union President Brenda L. Mitchell told The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans that she objected to the way charter schools "vacated" teachers’ jobs. The largely independent public schools are exempt from many district regulations, including the obligation to employ union teachers.

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