Roemer — The Next Phase for America’s Most Radical School Improvement Effort: What New Orleans’s Shared Governance District Will Need to Succeed

It’s local again in New Orleans. In July, as required by state law, all city schools that remained in the Recovery School District returned to the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board. Now, the most radical school improvement effort in U.S. history enters a new phase, with a unique shared governance model that requires charter schools and their authorizer — the school board — to work together to realize a common vision for a citywide public school system.

Charter schools are grounded in the idea that by allowing for more autonomy in return for greater accountability, educators can make decisions closer to the classroom and, thus, improve outcomes for students. More often than not, we limit our thinking about innovation to the academic parts of the work, such as curriculum and teaching. Yet there are other areas of influence and innovation that impact the success of a charter school. In fact, Louisiana’s charter school law recognizes these areas by emphasizing that the purpose of charters is to explore “innovative teaching methods and a variety of governance, management, and administrative structures.”

As a case in point, New Orleans is now the epicenter for such innovation in the area of governance. Under its new governance paradigm, the city’s 81 schools, including 79 charter schools governed by nearly 40 charter boards, and their authorizer, the school board, will work together while holding one another accountable to realize a vision where all children reach their full potential, regardless of which school they attend.

In this model, charter boards have the tremendous responsibility of ensuring they have the proper school leadership and resources to lead their schools to success. The school board, in its role, must determine how best to oversee — but not operate — schools, while planning for the future. Together, the city’s charter boards and the school board must partner to turn a vision for educational excellence and equity into reality. The partnership must be rooted in humble, shared expectations for the district as a whole; and as partners, charter boards and the school board must be able to work together to determine what is effective governance.

That said, there are some cautionary notes. If this promising reform effort is to continue delivering results, it is critical that the school board put politics aside and resist the temptations of knee-jerk reactions and top-down bureaucratic mandates and, instead, create frameworks of accountability that focus on results. Micromanaging schools will not equal better performance. Instead, it will lead to a loss of the autonomy, flexibility, and innovation that have been so vital to the New Orleans turnaround.

Charter boards should continue to be allowed to think in innovative ways, shielded from shifting political winds that often hamper traditional, locally elected district boards. Charter advocates must also encourage the school board’s elected members to think differently about their roles as they walk a delicate line between the community’s need for democratic authority over its school system and the autonomy that is legally mandated for the city’s charter schools.

While the ultimate responsibilities of each charter board are ensuring that its school (or schools, for multi-site operators) is meeting its mission, acting as a good steward of the public dollars, and complying with state and federal laws, it is equally critical that the volunteer charter boards be thoughtful and visionary, and recognize that their actions create an image not just for their school but for all charter schools.

As we review the sweeping transformation of New Orleans education since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it is clear that the work is taking place in phases. Immediately following the storm, it was about rebuilding and getting students and teachers back in the classroom. This was followed by a phase in which the emphasis turned to implementing equitable enrollment and funding policies. Reunification is yet another step that provides us with an opportunity to demonstrate how a traditional school board and dozens of volunteer charter boards working together can lead not a school system, but a system of schools, to deliver on the promise for 21st century education.

The endeavor will require significant support from outside organizations to develop programs, resources, and learning opportunities that help these entities deliver on this vision. For its part, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools has spent the past six years developing a board recruiting and training program, The Top Shelf, and this year launched the Charter Board Leadership Academy. This academy is a partnership with the nationally renowned Charter Board Partners. The purpose is to create a pipeline of volunteer community leaders to carry out this vision for innovative governance while cultivating a collaborative culture that continues putting students first, empowering parents, and eliminating the influence of special interests.

The academy brings together leaders from the boards of the city’s charter schools and board candidates for a series of seminars and workshops from experts. The goal is to advance equity and school performance by providing boards with the tools and resources they need to build healthy structures. These will empower meaningful, targeted decisions that drive schools toward the future they want through community input, exploration of alternative futures, robust deliberation, and accountability.

New Orleans is trying something that has never been done before. The stakes are high, with thousands of students’ futures in the balance. Charter boards must rise to the occasion, set the bar high, and be visible leaders. Many already are doing so; for those that are struggling, we will continue to support them and the partnership with the Orleans Parish School Board and its leadership in order to prepare our students to become the next generation of leaders in this iconic and historic city.

Caroline Roemer is founder and executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Schools.

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