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The return of local control

Brian Hubble illustration

The return of the majority of New Orleans’ public schools to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), due to take place in the next two to three years, was inevitable, but it isn’t an action to celebrate just yet.

Even though the return, required by the state Legislature in the spring, was backed by some of the very people who pushed for a state takeover of about 100 “failing” schools in 2005, there’s a good deal of uncertainty about the end result.

Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and a key player in the takeover, supported the schools’ return to city control, for example. She describes the new law that requires the return as “a really good piece of legislation,” because it protects the autonomy of charter operators who have turned the schools around. “But at the end of the day,” Jacobs says, “it’s going to boil down to execution.”

At the moment, the OPSB’s smaller system includes 18 charters and six schools managed by the board’s superintendent. It is an A-rated school district, but that ranking is skewed by the fact that the OPSB district contains historically high-performing schools, such as Benjamin Franklin High School and Lusher, selective admission charter schools that serve students mostly from high income families.

The OPSB is required to take control of the state Recovery School District’s 52 charter schools by summer 2018, unless an advisory committee decides that the OPSB needs more time to prepare. Even though the legislation prohibits OPSB from interfering with day-to-day management of the returning schools, Jacobs says, it must assume the RSD’s present peripheral functions, such as enrollment management.

The enrollment process is crucial to a successful return. “If they can’t run the enrollment system well, we have problems,” she says.

All RSD schools are open enrollment. The district devised an application process that allows parents to make one application. The process assigns the applicant to a school based on available seats, parent preference and other factors. OPSB has participated, but taking over the enrollment of an extra 33,000 students will be challenging.

Taking over portfolio management for an additional 52 charter schools is another challenge. The OPSB superintendent must review the performance of each charter, because he or she and the school board are ultimately accountable for the academic performance of all district schools. If a charter school doesn’t perform adequately, the new law gives the superintendent authority to renew, extend or terminate charter management, says Education Now! a website founded by Jacobs that provides education information.

The OPSB superintendent, therefore, is a powerful figure in the future of New Orleans schools. Under the new law, only a supermajority of board members could veto the superintendent’s actions, Education Now! says. However, as the elected governing authority, the OPSB appoints the superintendent and can also replace him or her if there’s disagreement.

Because of this chain of command, the long term survival of the charter school model is questionable under the supervision of the OPSB. Now the model for all but six New Orleans public schools, it shifts academic and budgetary decisions to the school level and away from distant administrators and elected school board members, some of whom, pre-Katrina, interfered with school decisions for their own self interests. Hostility to the charter model exists among some present board members.

The charter model also weakens the power of teachers unions, which by their very nature are more interested in protecting job contracts than protecting academic quality. The all-charter model under the state run RSD district precluded hiring principals and teachers for any reason other than proven ability, because to fail academically meant being closed down. OPSB schools could have operated indefinitely in failing mode, if the state hadn’t seized most of them after Katrina.

It is these structural differences that have resulted in the remarkable turnaround of RSD schools. The great majority of New Orleans schools were “failing” by state standards in 2005.

Now only a handful are failing, even though standards have increased.

This flip, from failure to average, occurred in less than a decade with the same kind of at-risk students that populated New Orleans schools pre-Katrina. A few brave state officials and many dedicated charter school leaders and teachers proved that economically disadvantaged students can learn when educators and their leaders focus on student performance, not power plays and union contracts.     

In fact, the state Legislature may regret its decision to transfer RSD schools as early as October. OPSB members face reelection this year, and the board’s razor-thin pro-charter majority could change overnight.

Anti-charter activists want schools returned to the direct-run, centralized model of school leadership, the model that created one of the worst school districts in the country. If they succeed in electing boards with similar views, struggling charter schools could be returned to the direct-run model by OPSB superintendents instead of being assigned to better charter operators.

Because so much is at stake, the 2016 OPSB elections could take on the drama of the ’15 Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) elections, when business leaders and reformists fought to retain state board members who supported Common Core standards.

The New Orleans election will highlight candidates’ attitudes toward charter schools. RSD schools returning to OPSB take their present charters with them, according to state legislation, but those charters aren’t guaranteed for a lifetime.

 

 

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