With 25% of New Orleans Schools’ Charters Expiring and No Test Data to Show How They’re Doing, Educators Seek a Change in State Law

Executive Director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools Caroline Roemer (Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools)

Correction appended May 19

When the U.S. Department of Education announced in March that states were excused from administering annual assessments this year because of the coronavirus, the collective sigh of relief was audible from coast to coast. Educators and school officials would not have to add getting students — many still AWOL — to take and pass high-stakes exams to their mounting list of challenges.

At the same time, in New Orleans, education policy watchers also could hear dominoes beginning to fall. Annual performance reports are the backbone of the city’s unique system for overseeing charter schools, which make up nearly the entire district. Nearly one-fourth of those schools are up for renewal next year, a decision that hinges on test scores, state school report cards and other metrics of success.

Unless the Legislature takes up the issue or a creative solution is found, the district will be left trying to decide whether to close several schools based on incomplete data or give extended operating agreements to schools that have lagged academically for years. Amending the law to allow for a one-year pause to the renewal cycle would give some stability to families already in upheaval because of the virus.

The district’s intricate accountability system was created four years ago to facilitate the return of the schools — which had been under the control of the state-run Recovery School District since Hurricane Katrina — to the Orleans Parish School Board. The architects of the large-scale education reforms that were part of the schools’ reconstruction wanted to make sure that a locally elected board would not bend to political pressure when it came to holding schools accountable.

Research released last summer by Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans found that stringent charter school authorizing — a mechanism for closing failing schools and replacing them with quality options — was the driving force behind most of the district’s academic improvements over a 14-year period. And yet, closing a school is one of the most contentious things a district can do.

With its combination of an autonomy-for-accountability contract and a democratically governed district overseeing enrollment, busing and other functions, the New Orleans experiment had been closely watched by education leaders throughout the country in the decade before COVID. Now, with high-stakes tests paused everywhere and uncertainty about the decisions districts and states make using the resulting data, New Orleans’s response to the lack of accountability data could inform how other school systems cope with the same challenge.

For the 18 schools whose charters expire in the 2020-21 school year, the lack of accountability data next year leaves the district, which oversees 78 of the city’s 86 public schools, with few options — all of them with big downsides, school leaders say. They want the state legislature to allow for the one-year extension on the pending renewal decisions.

‘It’s really about stability’ 

Schools need to know now what the plan is, says Patrick Dobard, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans and former leader of the state Recovery School District. “It’s unclear how the district will make renewal decisions later this year, and that uncertainty sets off a chain reaction that jeopardizes potential transitions to, and future growth of, higher-quality charter schools,” he told The 74 in an email. “Every day that passes with uncertainty around charter renewal decisions is another day regrettably lost that could have been used to better plan and prepare for transformations or expansions by stronger organizations.”

“It’s really about stability,” says Sabrina Pence, CEO of FirstLine Schools, a network of five charter schools, two of which are up for renewal. “Given the changes around us, it’s really important for families to know their school is going to be here.”

Based on last year’s data, her Arthur Ashe and Phyllis Wheatly Community schools would likely be allowed to continue operating, Pence says. But for schools that have been lower-performing for some time, things get complicated.

On the one hand, if assessment data could be created this year, it might show rapid improvement in a troubled school. On the other, the district needs to be able to close programs that have earned multiple F’s.

Four of the schools up for renewal were on district improvement plans intended to address deficits ranging from not hiring enough teachers or offering a full range of academics and extracurricular activities to failing to serve special education students.

State law allows for accountability waivers when schools are closed for 18 or more days because of a disaster, such as the 2016 floods in Baton Rouge. But the state waivers issued in response to the pandemic are for the 2019-20 school year and can’t be applied to a decision made in 2020-21.

In response to The 74’s interview request, the district, which has rebranded as NOLA Public Schools, sent a written explanation of the laws at play and factors being weighed: “In creating renewal scenarios, it has been important to gather the input and feedback of the schools that this would impact for 2020-2021, consider the potential impact that such decisions would have on the portfolio as a whole, and understand that the application of any revision to the process would set a precedent for future pandemic scenarios. We have not made any final or binding decisions at this time.”

Under state law, new charter schools are granted permission to operate for four years. At the end of its third year, a startup school’s performance is reviewed and its charter can be extended to a fifth year. When those five years are over and any extension of the contract expires, the school’s authorizer — in this case, the district — has three options: give it an additional three years, renew for 10 years or, subject to a series of performance metrics, close it. The decision is ultimately made by the superintendent.

Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, says non-renewal could create legal liability for the district because schools could argue that the terms of their contract — to be evaluated on five years’ data — were violated.

“On the flip side, you can have schools operating for five years below standards, where it’s just not right to give a three-year renewal,” she says.

School leaders have brainstormed compromises, such as granting three-year renewals but adding annual performance targets to schools’ contracts or tweaking the timing of the renewal process. But in addition to questions about the laws’ latitude, Roemer says, school leaders have enough on their plates trying to support their communities through the COVID-related closure.

‘What we need is reasonableness’ 

Better than premature closure or extension, say Roemer and others, would be for the Legislature to amend state law to allow for a one-year extension of a school’s charter. But lawmakers — one-third of them new because of term limits — have vowed to focus on only the most urgent issues for the remainder of the session. Plus, school leaders don’t like the existing bills an amendment would have to be tacked onto.

A special session is a distinct possibility, but delaying a push to amend the charter authorizing laws is also risky. The Legislature might not reconvene, or it could come back into session to focus only on one topic, such as a state budget shortfall.

Pence says NOLA Public Schools has canvassed the leaders of affected schools for thoughts on how to handle the process. At this point, she says, her focus needs to be on summer school and what the next academic year, which starts in August, should look like.

“What we need is reasonableness,” she says, especially since the city’s public schools were already working hard to address learning gaps among historically underserved students. Whenever and however those students come back to school, they will bring new trauma and bigger learning losses: “We have been sweating our student achievement, but we’re going to have to go farther and faster.”

To that end, Jay Altman, one of Pence’s predecessors at FirstLine Schools and a co-founder of New Orleans’s first charter school in 1990, says the inequities the pandemic has thrown into stark relief — and the depth of the challenge of meeting the needs of the city’s poorest residents — suggest that the accountability metrics need a wholesale retooling.

He favors dropping the grade-level proficiency tests most states have required since the federal No Child Left Behind Act went into effect in 2002, and replacing them with “contextual value-added measure” — a system in which individual student growth is assessed and then compared with growth in other students who started at the same academic level.

Critics of standardized testing have long complained that with academic scores frequently correlating with poverty, state rating systems unfairly penalize schools where few children read or perform math at grade level. Proponents of school accountability don’t necessarily disagree but insist that getting rid of data that could undergird school improvement strategies isn’t the answer.

Using weighted academic growth data would be a fairer way of keeping data flowing, says Altman. “This is not just a New Orleans issue; this is a national issue,” he says. “It’s inequitable to just tell teachers and schools serving the students with the greatest needs, ‘Work harder or we’re going to ding you.’”

Louisiana’s Department of Education is putting together resources for schools to use when they reopen that are likely to include tests that can help schools measure learning lost in the closure and pinpoint the best ways of making it up, Altman and Pence say. This makes them hopeful that there will be options going forward.

In the meantime, Pence says, she has bigger problems. The grim emerging fiscal picture for the city’s schools suggests that it’s time to revisit what could have gone better in the aftermath of Katrina. For example, this time, she says, the process of figuring out what happens in schools going forward should focus on the whole child, with an emphasis on trauma and mental health, and must incorporate meaningful community input.

“Schools can really provide stability to the community,” says Pence. “Teachers can stay employed, so kids can go back to school, so parents can go back to work.”

Jamar McKneely, CEO of the seven-school InspireNOLA Charter Schools network, agrees. When schools did not reopen after the hurricane, the impact on students was incredibly traumatic, he says. “It’s important for our community to have a sense of normalcy.”

Correction: The Legislature would need to amend state law to allow a one-year extension of schools’ charters.

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