New Orleans charter schools set to return to local control

by Laura Edghill
Posted 5/13/16, 02:53 pm

More than a decade after a catastrophic hurricane swept in the largest urban school reform program in U.S. history, Louisiana is poised to return more than 50 New Orleans charter schools to local control.

Sort of.

A bill that has worked its way through the Louisiana House and Senate will return oversight control of the affected schools to the New Orleans Parish School Board. But the charters will retain management of their own campuses in a unique hybrid system the nation’s school reformers will be watching in hopes of finding solutions for other troubled districts.

After Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters breeched the city’s levees and left more than 100 public school buildings unusable, the state swiftly took control, designating the afflicted area a Recovery School District (RSD). The Parish School Board retained a handful of the highest-performing schools, but the vast majority were reclassified under the RSD and subsequently released to the control of independent charter organizations. 

At the time, the Parish School Board was widely criticized for ineffective management, failing schools, and outright corruption. But many local residents strongly opposed the move as they grieved not only the loss of homes, livelihoods, and loved ones, but their local community schools as well. Under the RSD, most students are bused out of their neighborhoods to schools farther from home than residents were used to pre-Katrina.

In the ensuing years, the charters have shown some measurable progress but uneven overall results. Many tout high graduation rates and improved scores on standardized tests. And while some studies corroborate those claims, critics emphasize that other charters shut down after failing to achieve their targeted achievement rates, leaving numerous students and their families in flux and on their own to enroll in other schools. 

A recent report by Measure of America notes thousands of youth also are unaccounted for in New Orleans schools. They may have dropped out or their schools may have closed, but they haven’t enrolled elsewhere.

Some legislators strongly questioned placing the charters back under the Parish School Board’s authority.

“How do we know that these charter schools, to go back under that umbrella, will not be affected in a negative way?” Rep. Pat Connick asked.

But one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Walt Leger said the district’s failings were old history.

“Our school board … has demonstrated good fiscal management of the schools they are operating,” he said.

Connick eventually voted for the bill.

The legislation is far from a total return to the old system. Under the bill, the charters would maintain their appointed boards and continue their autonomy to hire, fire, and make curriculum decisions. The Parish School Board would gain the broad administrative authority to establish, renew, or revoke whole charters. 

Some critics of the bill opposed it because it doesn’t re-establish complete local control. 

“It is returning a system of charter schools which maintain their unelected, self-appointed governance structure,” said Karran Harpar Royal, a New Orleans parent and longtime charter and RSD critic.

Other critics of the legislation note the Parish School Board, which is locally elected, may face intense pressure to avoid unpopular decisions such as closures, even though its new oversight role tasks it with this capacity.

The stakes are high for New Orleans as the nation scrutinizes this unique marriage of charter and public school interests. Many other beleaguered urban school districts, like Detroit, will be watching closely for the outcomes of this large-scale experiment in urban school reform.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

<p> <em class="active_element">The Associated Press contributed to this report.</em> </p>

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

Read more from this writer