New Orleans seeks post-Katrina 'healing' with new school plan

The Louisiana legislature passed a law this week returning New Orleans schools to local control for the first time since hurricane Katrina. But critics charge that the handover is in name only.

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.

Jamar McKneely was among the 7,500 teachers and other school staff who lost their jobs in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

Louisiana swept away the traditional school system in New Orleans in 2005, taking control of all but a handful of schools and eventually turning them over to charter-school operators. The wholesale firing of teachers left a particular kind of grief in its wake.

Now Mr. McKneely is standing with his city at another crossroads, hoping for a unifying shift as its local school board and superintendent prepare to take back the helm of the school system – one that’s been transformed over the past decade into a national experiment.

For some, the experiment has been so successful that they are loath to have the state relinquish control. Advocates point to graduation rates that have jumped in recent years. But others question the extent of the transformation – pointing to statistics that show that improvements are not reaching the most disadvantaged in New Orleans.

“This has been a hot conversation for our city, but this is one step back into empowering our local citizens to actually have a voice in the educational process that’s happening with our youth,” says McKneely, now chief executive of InspireNola Charter Schools and a member of the newly announced advisory group for the transition to local control.

The state legislature passed a law this week that keeps the framework of autonomous public charter schools in place – giving them control over things such as staffing, school hours, and budgets – but gives back oversight of charter authorizing and centralized policies to the elected Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) in two to three years.

McKneely – one of the many African-Americans who felt hurt by the top-down shakeup of the school system – acknowledges that “there is still a lot of distrust there.”

But when he returned to New Orleans a year after the storm, he again worked in the schools, and this time, he saw benefits to educators having autonomy. “We still have a very long way to go,” he says, but with the new law, he sees “a healing process” taking shape.

More than 90 percent of the city’s public school children attend charters, while a handful of well-performing schools are run directly by the OPSB. Families request their top choices through a central enrollment system known as OneApp, and a computerized process assigns students.

The historic moment for New Orleans has some residents worried it may be too soon for the state to step away. They remember the corruption and inequities that festered in the school system before the state took over.

On the other hand, some local advocates say the shift will be to local control in name only.

Because charter schools or networks each have their own appointed board, keeping that framework in place “doesn’t really return schools to elected governance,” says Karran Harper Royal, an advocate and blogger who helps parents navigate the school system. “This bill was crafted strictly for the charter school lobby,” she says.

The majority of voters support the charter-heavy model, so most of the debate centers around “is OPSB ready” to take the helm, says Vincent Rossmeier, policy director of The Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Proponents of the state Recovery School District’s approach point to higher academic achievement, graduation rates, and college enrollment. Before Katrina, Orleans Parish was the second-lowest performer in the state. By 2014 it was performing better than 25 other Louisiana parishes, the Cowen Institute reports.

In a recent Cowen poll, 38 percent of New Orleans voters favored keeping the charter school structure but allowing OPSB to oversee it instead of the state. But almost as many, 32 percent, favored continuing to allow non-failing schools to choose when they shift from state to local oversight.

How much local control?

Some parents, particularly black parents, say the loss of democratic control has harmed their community.

About 18 of every 100 of the city’s 16- to 24-year-olds are not in school or working, compared with 14 percent for the nation as a whole. Students with disabilities have had to sue for fair treatment in the charter school system. Child poverty and black unemployment are soaring.

“This has not been all that successful in the lives of the people, and now it’s being cemented in our city” by the new law, Ms. Royal says.

Royal had lobbied for an alternative bill that would return local control but would not have forced the school board to mirror many of the current policies of the RSD, as the new law does.

For instance, there’s currently a 50 percent cap on the number of seats a school can offer to neighborhood children. But “local control” should mean availability of neighborhood schools, Royal says.

During a press conference Thursday morning with Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., members of the new advisory committee spoke of their commitment to progress.  

“The passing of this legislation is a proud moment for New Orleans, as it signals a unification of our schools … where oversight and accountability are managed by individuals whom we elect from our community,” said Erica McConduit-Diggs, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.

“It is a responsible and thoughtful compromise that seeks to ensure equity and accountability are institutionalized.”

Redefining school governance

Charter school operators and state education officials defend the system they’ve built. The pillars of offering schools autonomy, offering families choice, and holding schools accountable for performance, are in place, so the new role of OPSB “is absolutely a redefining of what governance for public education can look like,” says Michael Stone, co-CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, which invests in and supports improvements in public charter schools and citywide strategies.

Mr. Stone agrees the system still has a long way to go in properly serving disadvantaged students. Too many fall through the cracks in the juvenile justice system or because of a dearth of services to address serious emotional and behavioral needs, many related to the trauma of living in impoverished, violent neighborhoods.

But he says the RSD in the past five years has led “a real sea change in the number of supports for the most vulnerable students.”

New Orleans now has the potential, State Superintendent John White said, to model for other parts of the country how state takeovers can avoid being open-ended transfers of authority and instead represent a sustainable way for schools to focus on educating, free from political bureaucracy.

The new oversight role for the school board is “about committing the city to seeing through the final stage of the transformation” – to truly becoming a system that embraces all of its kids, Mr. White said during a recent “Rock the Schools” podcast interview.

Now OPSB will have the opportunity to prove it can continue the progress, he and others say. In part, that will rest on their willingness to not renew contracts with low-performing charters and to allow high-performing charters to expand.

“I have confidence…., but the real story is going to be, can they pick up the mantle in leading on these equity issues and ensuring every child gets a great education,” Stone says.

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