The process to eventually return local control over all 52 New Orleans public schools that have been run by the state for the past decade began Thursday evening with the approval of legislation by a Louisiana Senate committee.
Senate Bill 432 would establish a framework first for 10 schools, and then by 2018 — 2019 at the latest — all the schools currently under the state’s Recovery School District would return to the Orleans Parish School Board.
Created in 2003, the RSD was set up to seize failing schools and turn them around. It started with a handful of schools but accelerated after Hurricane Katrina exposed problems, sometimes outright corruption, on the OPSB and underlined how poorly New Orleans public schools had been performing.
Only a few schools now are under the OPSB’s control, and more than one official noted that those schools are performing better than the ones under RSD control.
Under the bill, the RSD would return all the buildings and facilities to the OPSB, which then would take over their governance, determine funding and make enrollment decisions — if the measure wins legislative approval and is signed into law by the governor.
New Orleans Sen. Karen Carter Peterson said state control served to stabilize the schools, but it had been considered a temporary solution from the very beginning.
“It’s time,” Peterson said. “The schools need to be returned.”
Peterson, a Democrat, said the legislation was the result of weeks of negotiations, which continued into Thursday morning before the committee met. She and the local legislative delegation agreed with charter school operators to make modest changes in the bill.
“We have a bill that, certainly, can get us to our common goal: back to local governance,” Peterson said. The plan allows the transfer to take place over time and has benchmarks to ensure that it is going well.
The Senate Education Committee approved the measure without objection and advanced it to the full Senate for consideration.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said parents need to be able to access school officials locally to voice concerns and ask questions, rather than having to go to Baton Rouge to get their issues addressed.
Still, the OPSB has not been intimately involved in running such a large system for years, and it could encounter problems.
Michael Stone, of New Schools for New Orleans, an advocacy group, urged caution, saying the nation’s educators will be watching how the transfer goes.
“There are risks,” said Jay Altman, CEO of FirstLine Schools, a charter management operator known for school turnarounds. “I want to hold the delegation to the commitment that if this doesn’t work out, we can go back.”
Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said the charter school officials looked nervous about the impending move. “There’s a lot of hesitation in your body language. You’re making me uncomfortable,” he said.
“We do have some concerns” about the mechanics of the move, said Jamar McNeely, of InspireNOLA, a charter school management organization.
The legislation would require a minimum of 10 schools to return first to the OPSB. New Orleans Sen. Wesley Bishop, a Democrat who was involved in the negotiations, said the idea is to work out the difficulties and technicalities that come up during the transfer.
The rest of the schools would follow by fall 2018. But, if something pops up, like problems with financing, the move could be postponed to work out the operational issue. In that case, the complete transfer would be accomplished by 2019.
Most of the schools being transferred are charter schools, which are public schools run by nongovernmental boards. Charters are supposed to offer innovative classrooms without the red tape common in traditional public schools.
About 74,000 students attend 139 of the schools, mostly in New Orleans.
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