School Choice & Charters

New Orleans Adopts Plan for Charters

By Catherine Gewertz — October 14, 2005 5 min read
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Struggling to jump-start education in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the district school board has decided to reopen its first buildings not as regular public schools, but as charter schools.

The board approved an application by representatives of the Algiers neighborhood, on the city’s west bank, to convert all 13 schools there to charter status. Eight are slated to open in November, with the five others to follow.

The Oct. 7 decision came amid ongoing discussions about what form the post- Katrina New Orleans district should take. Years of district infighting, mismanagement, and poor student performance have sparked calls for a profoundly different approach to education after the disaster. (“New Orleans Eyed as Clean Educational Slate,” Sept. 21, 2005.)

Indeed, the board’s vote followed weeks of high-level talks among officials in the offices of the governor, the state schools superintendent, the state board of education, and the Louisiana legislature, where frustration with the pace of educational progress in New Orleans reportedly is high. Those talks also included leaders of national foundations and charter school organizations interested in playing a role in the district’s revitalization.

Many of those close to the process saw the charter vote, strongly backed by state interests, as a first step toward enlarging the state’s role in the district.

Before the meeting earlier this month, the district board had been discussing reopening schools in Algiers, an area that was spared the damage caused by Katrina, as regular public schools. But its 4-2 vote, with one member abstaining, means that the schools will be operated by the community group, with the school board ensuring that the association meets its goals and deciding whether to renew its five-year charter.

The charter school application indicates that the move was designed to take advantage of the recent availability of a $20.9 million grant to Louisiana from the U.S. Department of Education to repair and expand charter schools, which are public but largely independent schools.

Some saw the school board’s decision primarily as a way to free schools from restrictions such as compliance with teachers’ contracts.

The application, for instance, says charter school employees will not be union members or employees of the Orleans Parish school district.

In its application, the Algiers Charter School Association said the new schools would be “exempt from all” district policies—a “one-foot-thick stack of documents” that has served, the application said, as little other than a “cumbersome and voluminous” obstacle to good schools.

Laying the Groundwork

In the days before the vote, New Orleans school board member Lourdes Moran, working with state and city lawmakers who represent the area, put the charter school application together. Meanwhile, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco readied an executive order waiving key portions of the state’s charter school law, such as a requirement that the conversion of a school to charter status be approved by a school’s faculty and parents.

The governor, a Democrat, signed the order the same day the board voted. Two state legislators and a New Orleans city councilwoman attended the meeting to support the application’s approval.

Ms. Moran had e-mailed the proposal to her colleagues the day before the meeting. Some board members, and acting Superintendent Ora L. Watson, said they had not had a chance to read the 57-page document before the vote.

Some members of the audience reportedly were incensed by the decision. According to The Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper, one said the board was “giving away the schools,” and another shouted that the decision was akin to a “public lynching.”

Board President Torin Sanders, who voted against the proposal, said he was angry that “there was no process” to evaluate it before the vote. He views the research on charters as too inconclusive to support that approach.

Before Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, leaving much of the city uninhabitable and derailing indefinitely the new school year, nine of the district’s 100-plus schools were operating as charters. Two more are seeking charter status. The state board of education must approve all such requests.

Mr. Sanders said he’s not sure the district needs 13 schools to be opened just yet. So far, he said last week, between 1,500 and 1,800 families have notified the district that they intend to return. The first group of eight schools scheduled to open can accommodate at least 7,000 students. Before the storm displaced most residents, the district had about 60,000 students.

Brenda L. Mitchell, the president of United Teachers of New Orleans, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said she was dismayed that the charter decision was made with so little discussion. She said the plan “could spell bankruptcy for the district” because it is in debt and now faces diversion of some of its state funding to the charter schools.

“A major change in a school district during a tumultuous time is probably something I would not have suggested,” she said.

But some school board members said profound change is long overdue. Jimmy Fahrenholtz, who backed the measure, said he was so frustrated with the district’s sustained failure that he wanted “to kill somebody.” He welcomes a larger role for the state, he said.

“They should have taken us over a long time ago,” Mr. Fahrenholtz said. “I’d be more than happy to give up my power to get kids educated.”

Defining State’s Role

Top officials in Louisiana are still discussing ways the state can enlarge its role in New Orleans’ schools, but the exact nature of that involvement was not clear last week.

“We’re not going to rebuild a failing system, we want to rebuild a school system that ‘works,’ ” state Superintendent of Education Cecil J. Picard said in an e-mail. “I do believe the state should have a larger role. … We have no choice but to be intimately involved in the process of rebuilding because education plays such a critical role in redeveloping New Orleans and the surrounding areas.”

Some urged caution both as the New Orleans board expands its job as an overseer of charter schools and as state officials mull more involvement there.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which is an advocate for charter schools, said Louisiana’s charter school law must be revised to allow other authorizers, such as mayors or universities. She also expressed worries that the move toward charter schools in New Orleans lacks a larger conceptual framework to guide and support it.

State takeovers don’t often solve districts’ deeply rooted problems, she said, and a school board with a long history of trouble might be a questionable choice as an overseer of new schools.

“Who is going to monitor them if New Orleans couldn’t even handle the system it had?” Ms. Allen said.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as New Orleans Adopts Plan For Charters

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