Budget & Finance

Outside Cash Floods New Orleans Board Race

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 30, 2012 4 min read
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In New Orleans, where 80 percent of students attend charter schools that are not overseen by an elected board, the race for a local school board seat has become the latest battleground over how to govern public schools in a city whose education landscape has been radically transformed in the seven years since Hurricane Katrina struck.

The campaign for District 3 of the Orleans Parish school board—a panel that directly operates just six traditional public schools and oversees 12 charter schools—features local lawyer Brett Bonin, a one-term incumbent who is running for re-election against two challengers, Sarah Newell Usdin, one of the city’s most visible charter school supporters, and Karran Harper Royal, a public school parent and long time advocate for students in special education.

Though five other school board seats are also up for grabs on Nov. 6, the contest in District 3 stands out for the more than $110,000 in campaign funds that Ms. Usdin has raised so far from her supporters—some of them education activists from out of state who favor market-based reforms. Her contributors include former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and Boykin Curry, a New York City hedge-fund manager and founder of two charter schools in that city. Fundraising on behalf of Ms. Usdin—the founder of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit created after the storm to launch new charter schools in the city—dwarfs that of Mr. Bonin, who has raised more than $24,000 so far, and Ms. Harper Royal, who reported roughly $5,500 in campaign cash as of the end of last month.

Potential for Influence

The amount of money—and the out-of-state sources for some of it—has prompted sharp criticism from Mr. Bonin and Ms. Harper Royal, as well as from some voters and educators in New Orleans, and is reminiscent of a Louisiana board of education race last year that attracted hordes of cash from out-of-state supporters for one candidate.

“You just have to ask what are they doing in our politics,” said Roslyn Johnson Smith, a longtime school administrator in New Orleans who founded a charter school in the Treme neighborhood after the hurricane. “To me, it looks only like a fight over money and political control. It’s a business conversation, not a conversation about educating our children.”

Most local school board races are modest affairs, with 87 percent of elected members reporting that they spent less than $5,000 on their most recent election effort, according to a 2010 survey by the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. In districts with at least 15,000 students, 10 percent of elected board members reported that they spent more than $25,000 on their most recent campaigns, according to the survey.

Though the current portfolio of schools overseen by the Orleans Parish board is relatively small, the stakes are high in the election. The city is the national epicenter for innovation in public schooling, especially in the use of charters. The board has authority to set tax rates and take out debt. It also must hire a new superintendent in the coming months and could begin taking control over city schools that had been swept into the state-run Recovery School District after Hurricane Katrina.

“Depending on how this goes, it will mean that even fewer of our schools are under democratic control because a group of wealthy people has decided they want to lock up the Orleans Parish board just like what they did on the state board,” said Ms. Harper Royal, who has no party affiliation.

Mr. Bonin, a Republican who supports charters but would like to see more community-based charter schools, agrees that the board’s independence is at risk if Ms. Usdin, a Democrat, is elected.

In an email, Ms. Usdin said she is “humbled” by the support she has received. She said that the “transformational change” in New Orleans “has only been possible through the tireless efforts and generosity of partners around the country.”

At the time of the storm, the Orleans Parish board oversaw 60,000 students in 100 schools and had become an embarrassing symbol of financial mismanagement and corruption.

Restoring Credibility

But Mr. Bonin, elected to the panel in 2008, said the board has come far to restore its credibility.

“We’ve worked hard to right the ship,” Mr. Bonin said. “We now have the highest bond rating of any agency in the city, and we have the highest cohort graduation rate of any district in the state of Louisiana.”

Ms. Usdin’s first foray into elected politics tracks similarly with that of Kira Orange Jones, the executive director of Teach For America of Greater New Orleans, who last year raised more than $450,000 from wealthy supporters, including billionaires Eli Broad, an education philanthropist, and Michael Bloomberg, the New York City mayor, to unseat a long time incumbent on the state school board. (“Jackpot for Insurgent in Louisiana Contest,” May 23, 2012.)

Ms. Usdin, who worked for TFA and the New Teacher Project, has made a large imprint on the post-Katrina schooling landscape through New Schools for New Orleans. (She stepped down as chief executive officer earlier this year.)

The 10 charter schools that have been incubated and opened in the city with substantial support from New Schools for New Orleans have posted a mixed record of success. Sojourner Truth Academy, a charter high school, voluntarily closed its doors at the end of last school year for poor academic performance. A handful of others showed gains in state test scores this year, but still received Ds or Fs under Louisiana’s rating system.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2012 edition of Education Week as New Orleans Board Race a Magnet for Outsiders’ Cash

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