New Orleans charter school experiment shifts to home rule

The city of New Orleans is set to regain control over its public school system for the first time since hurricane Katrina decimated the city's infrastructure.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/ The Christian Science Monitor/ File
A new high school is seen under construction in the summer of 2015 in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. The area was wiped out when a levee broke after hurricane Katrina.

The post-Katrina charter school experiment is set to enter its next phase in New Orleans with a bill to transfer limited control over the school system to a locally elected school board.

The bill in Louisiana's legislature would shift official control of New Orleans schools from the emergency-power Recovery School District established in the wake of hurricane Katrina to an elected school board. It leaves control over hiring, budgets, courses, and the length of the school day with the individual charter schools that teach 90 percent of New Orleans students, however, as Emma Brown reported for The Washington Post. The bill grants the board more autonomy than most cities in other areas, including the power to open new charter schools and shutter failing ones. 

Political columnist Stephanie Grace offered ambivalent praise for the "inevitable" change in an opinion piece for the Advocate, saying it was the next step forward in the democratic system.

"The bill authored by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat, and destined for Gov. John Bel Edwards' desk is a carefully negotiated document aimed at keeping the grand charter experiment alive and preserving individual schools' autonomy," she wrote.

Educators and legislators around the country have been watching the experiment with interest to see whether it represents a new, working model for their own struggling urban schools. Although many criticized the loss of local control, the system has raised four-year high school graduation rates from 54 percent in 2004 to 77.8 percent in 2012, as Stacy Teicher Khadaroo reported for The Christian Science Monitor in 2014:

Gone is a traditional central district office that assigns students to schools, hires and promotes teachers in negotiation with a union, and controls everything from budgets to textbooks. Instead, families here choose among charter schools citywide that – in exchange for their autonomy – have to meet certain benchmarks in order to have their charters renewed.

Test scores and graduation rates have climbed steadily. And while there are fewer public school students than before the storm – 43,000, down from 65,000 – the demographics are similar: 90 percent African-American (compared with 94 percent pre-Katrina) and 82 percent low-income (up from 77 percent).

State Superintendent John White, a pro-charter educator who was part of a wave of idealists who filled the classrooms in a race to rebuild the public school system after hurricane Katrina devastated the city's infrastructure, says the shift represents success.

"The mission was to recover the schools, not to maintain a group of white bureaucrats not from New Orleans," Mr. White told The New York Times. "The mission has to be completed, and you can't call it completed when the central offices aren't serving all the schools."

Others worry that rebuilding and restaffing the damaged schools has not gone far enough to improve a school system known as one of the worst in the nation, but they see the success with charter schools so far as enough reason to move forward.

"We're talking to each other, which we didn't do before," Alexina Medley, principal of a New Orleans charter high school, told The Times. "We're one city. We should be one school system."

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