RECOVERY: LEARNING FROM THE PAST
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
ROBERT LANDRY ILLUSTRATION
Angry residents demanding that the state return New Orleans schools to local control bring the above truism to mind. Considering the shameful state of the school system before the state took control of it after Hurricane Katrina and the corruption scandal involving the Orleans Parish School Board that soon followed, it’s difficult to understand why there are so many vociferous opponents to the Recovery School District.
After all, when the state Legislature put all but a handful of New Orleans schools into the newly created state-run school system, the great majority of students scored below “basic” on standardized tests. According to state measurements, most of the parish’s 38,000 public school children were attending “failing” schools. The New Orleans school system was roundly considered among the worst in the nation.
Today – only five years later – the RSD has turned that figure on its head. Most of its 27,000 students attend academically acceptable schools. The number of schools in the “failing” category has significantly declined each year for the past three. In fact, given this successful trajectory, it’s likely that within another few years there could be zero schools failing as miserably as they were in 2005.
Nonetheless, the crowd that packed McDonogh No. 35 High School’s 450-seat auditorium in October to comment on the future of New Orleans schools contained many forceful critics of the RSD’s performance. Parents, educators, community organizers and officials gathered to comment on the state education department’s proposed plan to retain control of its New Orleans schools at least until 2012 and much longer for the majority of them.
The 2005 state law that took control of the schools required that the matter be revisited in ’10 and that the RSD make future recommendations to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. A plan co-authored by state Superintendent Paul Pastorek and RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas goes to BESE Dec. 9 for consideration.
Their plan recommends that the schools remain in the RSD until the 2012-’13 academic year. After that, any eligible schools – that is those that have reached certain performance goals – could make their own decisions about whether to return to the control of the Orleans Parish School Board or remain under the supervision of the RSD.
One critic at the public hearing called this plan “a total failure” according to a Times-Picayune report, and another railed against “injustice in the RSD system.”
Some of this discontent seems to be an outgrowth of the complex structure that has evolved in the past five years. In an effort to get the schools up and running as soon as possible in the aftermath of Katrina, both districts – state run and OPSB run – granted charters to some schools, which allow them to operate independently. Charters don’t report to either district directly because they have their own governing boards and because principals make all the day-to-day management decisions.
Today, most RSD schools are charters and their success at improving test scores with the same cohort of economically disadvantaged students that schools educated before the storm has been remarkable. On the downside, these schools have enrollment caps. To get in, applicants must win a seat through a lottery system. The children who don’t get in must find another school to attend, sometimes one that is much further away and possibly identified as low-performing. By law, the RSD must take any child who enrolls, though it may not be the one parents want. This fragmented system results in thousands of students spending as much as two hours a day on school buses. In some cases, the long commute is necessary to get to the school of choice and sometimes, the commute is involuntary.
Transportation is possibly the biggest headache in the post-Katrina school landscape. Transporting students to school from long distances is costly for schools and inconvenient for parents and students. The result is nostalgia for neighborhood schools that children can get to in a few minutes – the kind of schools that the former centralized school system provided pre-Katrina.
Only construction of more schools and a system of more or less equally good schools can solve this problem. Many RSD schools, primarily the charters, are well on their way to academic excellence, but unfortunately others are still “failing” according to state guidelines. RSD direct-run high schools, for example, are performing well below state standards. None of them even approach the school performance score of 60 that takes them out of the “failing” category.
Even so, in five years the RSD has managed to give thousands of school children a chance at a future that was not even conceivable pre-Katrina. Most of them couldn’t read and compute at grade level in 2005 and now most of them – at least in grades 1 through 8 – can.
It took the Orleans Parish School Board decades to run the schools into the ground and only five years for the state to turn them around. How anyone could call that transformation “injustice” is a mystery.
While it’s true that the present Orleans Parish School Board is more responsible than previous ones, past history shouldn’t be forgotten. A different kind of local governance, one that protects professional educators from political interference and micromanagement, should be considered before the state transfers a single school back to local control. Board members change, as the democratic process dictates, and there is no guarantee that future board members won’t follow in the footsteps of Ellenese Brooks-Simms, the former New Orleans school board president who pleaded guilty to taking $140,000 in bribes.
On the other hand, if BESE adopts the department of education’s recommendations this month and each school has a choice of which system to join, it’s possible that none will choose to return to the supervision of a school board that has a history of waste, mismanagement, interference and corruption.