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Louisiana Turns the Page: 11 Years After Katrina, New Orleans Schools Set to Return to Local Control

By Beth Hawkins | May 4, 2016

Update: As expected, late May 5, Louisiana's House of Representatives voted in favor of Senate Bill 432 by a margin of 55-16, reversing the 2005 state takeover of most of New Orleans' public schools.
Following a pro-forma vote in the Senate to approve an amendment, the bill will go to the governor's desk. John Bel Edwards is expected to sign it into law. More on the politics and implications of this historic vote below: 
Barring a last-minute twist, Louisiana lawmakers Thursday are expected to vote to dissolve a state-controlled school district that for the last 10 years has overseen the nation’s most radical foray into education reform.
Under the new law, the Orleans Parish School Board would assume responsibility for all 82 schools within the city of New Orleans. The re-unified school district, which has the support of a broad swath of New Orleans’ education reform and civic leaders, will again be the first of its kind: A publicly elected board will be responsible for systemic functions like enrollment, discipline and deciding whether to open or close schools, while schools’ independence will be enshrined in state law.
Patrick Dobard is superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery District, the agency that soon would begin relinquishing authority over 52 public charter schools, and has publicly urged lawmakers to adopt the new plan. It is time, he and a cross-section of the city’s education leaders asserted, to reunite New Orleans schools within a single, locally controlled school district.
“We are at a very unique place in time in that we are now able to start in earnest the transition of the governance of schools in New Orleans,” Dobard told Louisiana’s House Education Committee last week. “One of the reasons we’ve been able to be successful to a degree is that we have a very strong policymaking framework in New Orleans, one that emanates from schools, from school leaders, from those closest to the children who do the work every day.”
The consolidation would be complete by 2018, though the law includes a one-year extension if the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) needs extra time to increase its capacity. The OPSB currently oversees 20 schools, six traditional district schools and 14 charters. (Louisiana’s parishes are the equivalent of counties.)
The impending shift has received little outside attention so far. Proponents have moved the reunification bill extraordinarily quickly, perhaps because the deal would also take the wind out of the sails of anti-charter lawmakers now looking to return the schools to the traditional board — and without the protections many say are vital to their continued independence and academic growth.
But even New Orleans residents who support the bill are holding their breath regarding the fine print. Members of the local elected school board, which will become the city’s primary charter authorizers, have been very vocal about their opposition to chartering. School leaders fear these new overseers won’t respect the boundaries in the legislation and may well refuse charter growth.
Others who feel the schools’ independence is protected by state law privately express doubts that the Orleans Parish School Board will have the technical expertise or political will to hold schools accountable.
Debate aside, no school system has been so heavily scrutinized in recent years as has New Orleans’ in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One way or another, the new plan being debated this week in the House of Representatives has the potential to keep the city at the forefront of the nation’s education reform debate for years to come.
A decade of breakthroughs – and mounting tensions
Last year, as Katrina’s 10-year anniversary approached, tensions continued to escalate between longtime New Orleans residents who were angry that their voices were being drowned out by newcomers and outside education reform proponents who feared the city and district lacked the capacity — and perhaps the will — to continue raising student outcomes. Those making decisions about African American students were disproportionately white.
Many communities wrestle with the tension of educational freedom vs. accountability — between elected school boards that must answer to the community and the needs of individual schools to make autonomous decisions about how to best serve their student body. Districts across the country are exploring different ways of balancing community oversight with core standards.
If the plan works, New Orleans could lead the way in demonstrating how to achieve this balance.
“We have to get this right,” says Michael Stone, co-CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. “The stakes are so high and the rest of the country is watching us to see if you can have a true portfolio district with an elected school board.”
Jamar McKneely is the founder and CEO of the charter management organization Inspire NOLA, whose schools are authorized by the traditional district. He is one of the advocates who helped negotiate the current package with sponsoring lawmakers.
“As long as we are able to sustain our autonomy, going back to local control will be to our benefit,” he says. “Our community has to have a voice not just in improving our schools but our city.”
Ultimately parents and other community members can’t hold charter leaders accountable without an elected board, says Erika McConduit, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.
“This is something our community has long fought for,” she says. “This has been a division in our community and it’s time to start the healing process.”
In 2003, lawmakers created the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) to take over and turn around a “portfolio” of persistently underperforming schools that were among the nation’s worst. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the district had taken over five New Orleans schools and converted them to independent charter schools.
The storm damaged or destroyed some 80 percent of New Orleans’ schools, prompting the takeover of an additional 102 properties. The Orleans Parish School Board retained authority over 24, among them the highest-performing schools in the city, many with selective admissions criteria.
Faced with the scope of the devastation and empowered to try something totally different, the state’s RSD created the first district in the nation comprised entirely of charter schools. Many literally started from the ground up; a number still operate in temporary trailers bought in the months after the hurricane.

Watch The 74 Investigation — New Orleans Schools, a Decade After Katrina:


In the decade that followed, the RSD shuttered the worst schools and gave charter operators a chance to turn around others. Today the district, which reports to the state Board of Education, oversees 52 charter schools. Some continue to founder and all have room for improvement, but on the whole Tulane University researchers and others have documented significant improvement over the last decade.
“If you look at pretty much any measure, there has been a substantial increase [in student learning],” says Tulane’s Doug Harris, who directs the school’s Education Research Alliance and has done pioneering research on the effects of New Orleans reforms on student outcomes. “Even more importantly, [New Orleans students have shown] a substantial increase relative to the state as a whole.” (Read The 74’s extensive interview with Harris about New Orleans’ student gains)
But inequities persist between the Orleans Parish School Board and the RSD. Two-thirds of students in Orleans Parish School Board-authorized schools are impoverished and 7 percent receive special education services. Contrast that with Recovery District Schools, where special education rates are double that and poverty rates hover around 90 percent.
New Orleans residents have been ambivalent about these dual systems. Instead, it is the growing number of outsiders making important decisions about residents’ lives that has led to escalating resentment in recent years — though few want to return to the era when a scandal-plagued school board oversaw schools where only a third of students could read or perform math at grade level.
In 2010, a policy was enacted allowing RSD schools deemed successful to decide whether to return to OPSB, but few have made the shift. Two years ago, several local school leaders surveyed their families, who also feared that a return to the old unified district would mean the return to a dismal past.
Adjusting course
The first step toward some cohesion came four years ago with the rollout of OneApp, a computerized enrollment system aimed at solving several issues that has been slowly embraced by schools across both the OPSB and RSD. An algorithm modeled on the system used to match medical students seeking residencies to hospitals, the system lets families list their top three choices.
Because the system’s administrators have refused media attempts to see the algorithm, there is still some controversy about the process. But on the whole, unless families are requesting a seat in the selective-admissions schools operated by OPSB, OneApp simplifies and streamlines the options for families who are no longer forced to navigate dozens of separate application processes.
The system also ensures that students with disabilities and behavior challenges are more democratically distributed and puts pressure on schools to find alternatives to suspending them. This change to the process later resulted in the creation of a uniform protocol for expulsions that is geared toward protecting students’ rights.
The most recent attempt to bring all New Orleans schools into alignment has sparked a furious backlash. Over the howls of protest from some of the system’s wealthiest schools, a new funding formula was adopted statewide. Federal funds intended to help schools offset the costs of meeting the needs of impoverished students and dollars meant for students with special needs will now follow individual students to schools.
In April, two OPSB schools filed a lawsuit challenging the new formula. They stand to lose funding because they serve few students with disabilities and because they will stop receiving some money earmarked for their gifted and talented students. (The families of some students in special education have joined the suit, arguing that the funding formula does not guarantee adequate services.)
At the same time as the OPSB lawsuits, sentiment within the RSD has been rising that it is time for New Orleans schools to again be controlled by New Orleans voters. Some of the local officials calling for the policy changes are actively hostile to the reforms of the last decade and insistent that schools, in fact, have worse outcomes than a decade ago.
During last year’s legislative session, Rep. Joe Bouie, D-New Orleans, a staunch opponent of charter schools, filed a local control bill without the protections many New Orleans school leaders agree is essential. Bouie has compared charters to the Tuskegee Experiment, in which black men with syphilis went untreated so researchers could study the effects of the disease.
The end of the RSD?
Bouie’s bill was roundly defeated in April, but the traction it did get reflected the tectonic shift that’s happened in Louisiana’s education politics. In November, House Minority Leader John Bel Edwards, also a sharp critic of charter schools and parental choice, was elected governor. The governor appoints three of the state school board’s 11 members. The other eight seats were decided in an expensive and ugly election in which pro-reform candidates preserved the advantage.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education hires the state superintendent, currently John White, a veteran of major reforms in New York City and elsewhere. Bel Edwards made no secret of his desire to fire White while on the campaign trail but now lacks the board votes to do it.
When the Louisiana legislature convened in March, it immediately took up a flurry of anti-charter, anti-choice bills, including a widely anticipated bid by Bel Edwards to sharply restrict the growth of charter schools. None are expected to pass.
But sensing a shift in the political winds, recovery district officials and New Orleans school leaders were already at work on a bill of their own: The local-control legislation, balancing both the school board and school independence, was quickly shepherded through the state Senate by New Orleans Democrat Karen Clark Peterson.
If the bill passes the House, Bel Edwards is expected to sign it. The shift would be accomplished during the three years remaining in state board members’ current terms.
‘You can’t legislate effectiveness. You have to create the conditions where people are more likely to be effective’
Sketched in broad strokes, the 72 public charter schools that will be overseen by the new district will continue to operate independently and be accountable for outcomes, but responsibility for system-wide functions like enrollment and financing will be consolidated under the elected board. Schools will continue to make unfettered decisions about staffing, curriculum, the length of the school day and year and other elements they feel are vital for improving outcomes. One significant change for charter advocates: Under the new legislation, schools that feel unfairly targeted by the district will be able to appeal to the state board of education to authorize their charter.
Among charter school supporters, fears abound. There are concerns that a board that’s hostile to school choice could be elected next fall. Some question the OPSB’s ability to manage this larger cohort of schools, while others fear state leaders are stepping away at precisely the moment when growth and progress are in danger of stalling.
“A return to local control will fail if the goal is simply to hold steady on the work of the previous 10 years,” Robin Lake and Ashley Jochim of the Center on Reinventing Public Education wrote recently. “Moving the system from ‘C’ to ‘A’ will take constant work and willingness to solve problems that don’t always have politically popular solutions, whether that’s taking action on a low-performing school or ensuring schools don’t engage in discrimination or acts of malfeasance.”
It’s not realistic to expect further academic growth without more equity, integration and democracy, counters Ben Kleban, the founder and CEO of New Orleans College Prep. In his view, there’s been a growing social cost to the lack of community representation in school governance.
“The bifurcated system in New Orleans has not helped racial healing,” he says. “Hopefully now some of that can happen.”
The number of special ed students and impoverished children in schools governed by the traditional board has begun to rise with the universal enrollment system, he notes. “I recognize that a lot of my peers are anxious and that I think stems from the unknown,” says Kleban. “Imagine a system where everyone does their share to meet the needs of the students with the highest needs.”
The founder of New Orleans’ first charter school in the 1990s and now CEO of FirstLine Schools, Jay Altman is optimistic. The changes of the last few years have quelled the concerns of the parents in his schools, he says.
“You can’t legislate effectiveness,” he says. “You have to create the conditions where people are more likely to be effective. There are going to be good boards and bad boards over time. What we have focused on is creating conditions that will work in this very human context.”
The context is indeed a very human one, agrees Jonathan Wilson, president of the board of 100 Black Men of Metro New Orleans. Forums on reunification the group has hosted have been packed, he says. And attendees have been paying attention to the nuances of the debate.
“Parents and community stakeholders are ready to assume leadership roles,” says Wilson. “A true story of resilience in New Orleans has to conclude with the community leading the education system.”
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