Country wisdom advises, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Such folksy reasoning is the underlying attitude that keeps New Orleans’ up-and-coming charter schools from voluntarily moving from the Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board. Even though 13 are academically eligible to move out of the state’s RSD system into the OPSB’s system, none are expected to do so anytime soon.
The RSD, which took over more than 100 “failing” schools after Hurricane Katrina, has turned the majority of them into semi-autonomous charter schools as a means of closing the achievement gap between high-income children and low-income children. The RSD gave charter operators free reign to create successful schools and turnaround failing ones and many of them have used that freedom to achieve miracles in less than seven years.
The OPSB and its supporters take the position that all the schools taken over by the state in 2005 should return to local control as soon as possible. State law set up an avenue for return based on academic improvement, but state education officials blocked that path two years ago by allowing eligible schools to stay with the RSD if they wish.
That policy was most likely connected to the RSD charter operators’ nervousness about being forced to return to the very agency that created one of the worst school districts in the country. Subsequent elected board members and their appointed superintendents have cleaned up the books, paid off debts and awarded charters of their own, but even a law suit that argued that state education officials had thwarted state law has failed to favor the school board.
“What would it take to get the charters back?” asks Lourdes Moran, an OPSB member. “The relationship between the RSD and the school board has improved tremendously.”
In an effort to accommodate charter leaders’ concerns, board administrators are trying to change state policy so that charters returning to the board could retain the funding controls that they have enjoyed under the RSD.
The state allows the RSD to grant Type 5 charters, which give school leaders total control over the millions of dollars the federal government grants schools to educate low-income students. The types of charter contracts that OPSB is allowed to grant require schools to apply for this federal funding through its staff. These “pass through” funds have created conflicts between the board and its own charters in the past. OPSB charter leaders say that the board has sometimes withheld money they needed to operate, charges that board officials have denied.
Not surprisingly, the RSD Type 5 charter leaders aren’t willing to give up control over their federal funding. Kathleen Padian, OPSB deputy superintendent for charter schools, says the administration is willing to give them that control, if the state allows it. However, it isn’t clear if it would take an act of the Legislature to change the policy, or if the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education could do it.
Padian believes that the state will change the policy, but how long it will take is anyone’s guess. In addition, it isn’t certain that school board members would grant such independent charters even if it had the power to do so.
“It would be up to the board,” Padian says.
In the long run, though, even retaining control over federal funds probably wouldn’t overcome the RSD charters’ primary fears.
Their deepest fear is that the board will use its charter granting powers to change the rules when the schools go up for charter renewal every five to 10 years. The problem with elected boards is members can change every four years and voting blocs can shift. One or two disruptive members can cause a good deal of havoc for school leaders.
No doubt RSD charter leaders also have heard reports of bullying tactics during charter audit reviews by some OPSB monitors. Paperwork has been rejected over the color of ink used, an employee said. An employee who has worked closely with the OPSB system for decades said, “They never reformed the ink-and-quill-and-parchment way they do business.”
The OPSB’s past history of incompetence and corruption has created a barrier of mistrust that a number of well-meaning board members and top administrators have tried to overcome. Tighter controls over finances have paid off, and the higher performing schools that were left in their control after Katrina also have shown academic gains in recent years. The board’s image has improved significantly, but sharp divisions among members are still common, leading to the same hostility that dominated pre-Katrina board meetings.
The question of which system will take the city’s schools into the future is an important one because they’re under a national spotlight. If New Orleans’ charter schools continue their upward trajectory, schools all over the country will follow in their footsteps.
“Governance is not so sexy,” says Jay Altman, co-founder and CEO of FirstLine Schools, “but it’s the single biggest issue facing schools today.”
Altman’s charter management group oversees two of the 13 schools eligible to move to the OPSB at the end this school year, but FirstLine’s board voted against a return at its October meeting. Instead, the board approved a document adopted by the Louisiana Association for Local Public School Governance that implies that the OPSB isn’t friendly to charter schools.
The state charter association said it wouldn’t support the return of schools to local control until the OPSB gives “concrete assurances” that it supports school choice for parents, operational autonomy for schools, holding failing schools accountable, transparency in spending and funding equity.
Padian called the association’s document “short-sighted” because it only addresses the OPSB, not any of the dozens of other school districts in the state.
The prized 13 would need to start paperwork for a return this month, but the OPSB will need to do a good deal more wooing to get such a process started.
Top Performing Schools
To be eligible to return to the Orleans Parish School Board at the end of this school year, schools must receive a school performance score of 80 or above for two years in a row. The schools that have reached this bar of excellence are:
• Akili Academy
• Arthur Ashe Charter School
• Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School for Science & Technology
• Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School
• KIPP Believe College Prep (Phillips)
• KIPP Central City Academy
• KIPP Central City Primary
• KIPP McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts
• Lafayette Academy of New Orleans
• Langston Hughes Academy Charter School
• Martin Behrman Elementary School
• O. Perry Walker Senior High School
• Sci Academy
Source: The Recovery School District