Now that some New Orleans schools have blossomed into belles of the ball in the nation’s efforts to reform urban education, attention has turned to the question of how to return all the city’s schools to local control without jeopardizing their five-year march to academic acceptability.

Past Orleans Parish school boards are blamed for the poor performance of New Orleans schools pre-Hurricane Katrina, and many civic leaders and educators don’t trust it to do any better in the future if it’s allowed to continue operating as is. Polls show that the general public doesn’t trust the board either, but voters want the schools to be returned to local authority eventually.

The state took control over most of the parish’s schools after Katrina because they were academically unacceptable by state standards. They were placed in the state-operated Recovery School District, which has turned most of them around in only five years.

The current Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), which has made many improvements to its operations, believes that successful schools should automatically return to its control, but state officials show no signs of returning them any time soon. In the meantime, local powerbrokers are meeting behind the scenes to determine how to restructure the OPSB in a way that protects schools from the kind of political interference that led to some of the worst schools in the nation.

“None of us on the board want to go back to what it used to be,” says Lourdes Moran, a OPSB member. “The question is, how do you get the trust of the people? No matter how much you try to reinvent yourself, it’s a very difficult task.”

The state’s distrust of the board became apparent in December 2010, when the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gave schools that have met certain performance benchmarks the right to choose their own governing authority. In other words, successful schools could stay in the RSD network or go back to the OPSB, which kept a handful of academically successful schools after Katrina. BESE also adopted a plan that allows any operator, including the OPSB, to submit a plan to take over a “failing” school.

Opening the door for OPSB to turn around a failing school was tacked on by state Superintendent Paul Pastorek about two weeks before BESE reviewed the future of New Orleans schools. Given the feud that has developed between the OPSB and Pastorek in the past few years, the latter part of the plan could be interpreted as a challenge or even a dare – something along the lines of “prove you can do it.”

From the OPSB’s point of view, Moran says Pastorek is bending the 2005 state law that placed New Orleans schools in the RSD to suit his own agenda. “He’s just doing it all in his own way, and he doesn’t care who gets in his way,” Moran says. “He comes across as a bully.”

The primary sticking point between state education officials and the OPSB is the state board’s decision to let successful schools choose which authority will oversee their operations. Moran says the OPSB doesn’t have the staff at the present time to take responsibility of all local schools, but it believes that successful schools should be returned to local control as they become eligible to do so.

“I don’t see why that would be problematic,” she says.

Much of the reluctance to return schools to local control is grounded in the widespread belief that the OPSB is hostile to charter schools, which operate semi-independently and have proven the most successful in educating low-income students. Most of the schools that the board oversees now are charters, but conflicts about financial issues between these schools and the OPSB have fueled concerns about the board’s commitment to them. Moran says that the board’s financial responsibilities for campus facilities aren’t adequately reimbursed by the schools that use the buildings.

Six schools are on track to make a governing choice next year, but assuming they choose to go back to the OPSB, the transfer wouldn’t occur until the summer of 2012. According to Pastorek’s plan, any school that has a school performance score of 80 for two consecutive years can leave the RSD if it chooses.

In the meantime, many interested parties are talking about ways to restructure the local school board to ensure quality education and the continuation of charter autonomy, if and when all schools are returned to local control.

Some parents and community groups want to return to the traditional model of neighborhood schools that dominated the system pre-Katrina, but that seems unlikely considering the power of opposing forces.
In October, the Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University indicated skepticism that the OPSB has the ability to govern a “large, diverse portfolio of schools with a high-needs student population” and recommended a “new approach to education governance.”

Even though the institute admitted that the current board hasn’t had the opportunity to prove its ability to retake its schools, it said that the city “should consider all options (for governance) including the creation of a new governing entity.”

The institute also said that the schools should remain with the RSD until a citizen-led governance solution is determined.

“Assuming charter schools will continue to play a major role in public education in New Orleans, any solution must promote cooperation and coordination between the multiple school operators. The new governance framework should only impinge on school autonomy to address major issues that transcend individual schools,” the Cowen report says.

These words indicate the continuing fear that the current board or future boards will sooner or later begin dismantling the autonomy of charter schools. Media outlets such as The Times-Picayune have also urged caution in returning schools to the OPSB.

To address community fears, Educate Now, a group dedicated to informing the public about developments in education, convened meetings of about 35 representatives of education, business and civic leaders in the fall to discuss how the OPSB could be restructured to pave the way for the safe return of all schools to local control.

The OPSB has threatened legal action against BESE to block its plan to leave the governing issue up to the schools themselves. Considering community distrust, a court order may be the only chance the local board has to reestablish its power to make or break New Orleans schools.