Law & Courts

All New Orleans Schools Set to Return to Local Oversight

By Arianna Prothero — May 12, 2016 5 min read
The Bienville Elementary School building, in New Orleans' Gentilly neighborhood, was taken over by First Line Charter Schools where Arthur Ashe Charter School now operates. The state-run Recovery School District chose not to reopen Bienville after Hurricane Katrina.
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More than a decade after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, and the state of Louisiana took control of most of New Orleans’ public K-12 system, the city’s schools will return to local oversight in the next two years.

Lawmakers approved legislation to relinquish authority over most of the city’s schools from the state, which has been supervising them since 2005. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, signed the measure Thursday afternoon.

However, the reunified system of schools that the locally elected Orleans Parish school board will preside over is radically different from the one it ran pre-Katrina—or any other district in the country. Nearly every school in the city now is a charter.

While proponents of returning the charters to the oversight of the city’s elected school board say it’s an important milestone in the revival of public education in New Orleans—and strengthens the argument that New Orleans could be a model for other cities—critics contend that the newly reconstituted system hardly qualifies as locally controlled.

And concerns remain that the Orleans Parish school board may not be ready to assume this new role, though the superintendent insists the district will be.

“The list goes on and on, how this school system has prepped itself for this moment,” said Henderson Lewis Jr., the Orleans Parish schools chief, who has been on the job just over a year. “I believe we will be able to make this merger happen by 2018.”

A Difficult History

In the wake of the hurricane and massive levee failures in August 2005, lawmakers swept most of New Orleans’ schools into the state-run Recovery School District, which manages school turnaround efforts across Louisiana. Many of the schools had been struggling with very low student performance for years, while the local board had lost public confidence amid a string of corruption scandals. Over the course of the next several years, the Recovery School District either closed schools or turned their operations over to charter groups.

Today, between Orleans Parish and the RSD, more than 90 percent of New Orleans’ public school students attend a charter. The RSD has oversight of 52 charter schools, while the Orleans Parish board directly manages six regular schools and oversees 18 charters.

Under the new law, the Recovery School District’s New Orleans-based charters will be transferred to the oversight of the local board by July 1, 2018.

The RSD will continue to provide oversight to other charter schools in the state.

If the switchover hits any snags, the deadline can be extended to 2019, but no later. All the schools will remain charters run directly by their own individual boards.

“The bill thoroughly preserves charter school autonomy,” said Patrick Dobard, the superintendent of the Recovery School District. “Instruction, curriculum, school calendars, the hiring, firing, and performance evaluations of employees… the board is prohibited from limiting [schools’] autonomy in those critical areas.”

Authority Over Renewals

Under the measure, the Orleans Parish board will take over operations of the citywide school enrollment system and the centralized expulsion process, which are currently managed by the Recovery School District.

But most significantly, the Orleans Parish superintendent and board will have authority to decide whether charter contracts are renewed and if schools must be shut down. Having those decisions debated and made locally was a crucial missing component of including the community, supporters say.

“Currently, with most of the schools being overseen by the [RSD], it’s highly difficult for our parents to attend a board meeting—most of the families are low income, and traveling to Baton Rouge is not feasible for most parents,” said Ben Kleban, the founder of New Orleans College Prep, a small, local network of schools overseen by the RSD.

“To be present, to interact and give public testimony is really the true nature of local school systems in this country and is the way it should be.”

Local oversight is important for reasons that extend well beyond New Orleans, Kleban said.

“It can’t be a model for local education without local control and local representation,” he said.

However, with a significant amount of authority over day-to-day operations remaining with the individual boards that oversee charter schools—which are appointed—some New Orleans residents bristle at labeling the new setup as one that’s locally controlled.

“I call it the fake-return-of-schools bill,” said Karran Harper Royal, a local education advocate and a staunch critic of charter schools in the city. “It cements these schools, the governance of charters, in our district into perpetuity.”

Among New Orleans residents, feelings are mixed about whether now—or anytime—is good for returning the schools to the Orleans Parish board, according to a recent poll by Tulane University. It found that 38 percent of registered voters supported shifting oversight of the schools to the local board by 2018, while 13 percent indicated the switch should happen even later. Thirty-two percent said they preferred the status quo.

White residents were more likely to indicate they wanted to keep the current system. Forty percent of white respondents said they preferred the status quo compared to 32 percent of black respondents.

Hurdles Ahead?

But initiating the transfer is likely only one in a series of hurdles to come. Not only will the district more than double in size, the charters it will absorb are generally lower performing and have more poor students and students with special needs than the charter schools it currently oversees.

Raising the specter of past corruption scandals, a board member was sentenced in September to one year in prison for accepting a bribe in awarding a contract to a janitorial company.

And all seven of the school board members are up for re-election this November.

That has people like Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, worried.

“Worst-case scenario, there’s a hostile board making life difficult for the district and the charters, and at the end of two years, the district just isn’t in the position to take back the schools, but there’s no contingency for that possibility,” said Lake. “The schools go back no matter what, dysfunction or function.”

The transition will be closely tracked by charter advocates across the country.

Although New Orleans’ nearly all-charter model has produced significant gains in academic performance, according to research from the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University, many have questioned whether the city is more of an outlier than a blueprint for others to follow.

But if a locally elected board can successfully curate and supervise a suite of charter schools, that perception could change.

“It is significant in the sense that if the system can go back under an elected school board and still prosper and still continue to improve, it will be irrefutable evidence that locally elected boards can oversee a system like this,” said Lake. “The stakes are high. And of course this is highly political—whatever happens, both sides will stick to their stories.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2016 edition of Education Week as New Orleans Schools Poised to Return to Local Board Oversight

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