Returning New Orleans charter schools to local control a step closer to becoming reality _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- Flanked by Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent Henderson Lewis, left, and Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard, New Orleans Sen. Karen Peterson takes questioning Wednesday from New Orleans Rep. Joseph Buie. He supports the concept of returning state-run public schools in New Orleans to local control, but opposes the way Peterson's bill would accomplish that goal. The Louisiana House Education committee heard a lot of criticism during the two-hour testimony but voted 11-2 to advance the legislation to the full House. Buie was one of the no votes.

Parents voiced their anger at the quality of state-run charter schools in New Orleans during a stormy Louisiana House hearing debating a move to return the city’s schools to local control.

Despite their complaints, the House Education Committee voted 11-2 to advance legislation that would transfer control of 52 public schools — all charters — run by the state Recovery School District for the past decade to the Orleans Parish School Board by 2018, 2019 at the latest.

Even with the move, charter schools would retain much of their autonomy.

The legislation now heads to the full House. The state Senate already has approved the legislation without a single “no” vote. If endorsed by the House without any changes, the next step for Senate Bill 432 would be for the governor to sign it into law.

Parents and critics voiced concerns that charter school operators are being given too much control in the arrangement set up in the Senate legislation.

Charter schools, often owned by companies and nonprofits but paid for with state money, operate autonomously on the theory that gives them more flexibility in setting curriculum and teaching techniques.

Later during the hearing, New Orleans Rep. Joseph Bouie, one of the two “no” votes, brought a second measure that would have affected the transition from state to local control without as much influence on the part of the charter schools. But the House committee voted to defer his House Bill 1108, which pretty much ends its chances in the regular session that ends June 6.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who sponsored the successful SB432, said after the vote that she understood the concerns but noted that everyone wanted the schools transitioned out of state control.

She said the charters and their concerns had to be part of the process.

“If you want the schools back, that’s what we have,” said Peterson, D-New Orleans. “This was collaboration, a negotiation.”

Most of the New Orleans delegation negotiated with charter school officials, the Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School Board superintendents and others for five or six weeks to cobble out the language in the bill Peterson presented.

RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said the Senate bill offers a return of schools to local control in a way that honors students and families.

“We know that this legislation does that,” Dobard said.

The RSD handles about 39,000 students in New Orleans and has 88 employees. The Orleans Parish School Board has a staff of eight. Merging the two staffs will be part of the effort once various issues are worked out, such as staffing models, duties and the fact that the state pay system differs from the OPSB, said Henderson Lewis, superintendent of Orleans Parish schools.

The school board’s priorities were to have the schools returned by July 1, 2018; to allow for local governance in an orderly process; and to protect the autonomy of school operations while also honoring the authority of the board, Lewis said, adding: “The Orleans Parish board is prepared for unification.”

“It is time for our community to be unified under one system,” said Erika McConduit-Diggs, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.

While not totally happy with the bill, McConduit-Diggs said it’s “as good as could be expected.” She liked the funding formula and the requirement that independent monitors would oversee testing of the students.

The RSD stemmed from a state law pushed by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco that allowed the state to take over public schools after Hurricane Katrina toppled the Orleans Parish school system.

The district had a reputation for some of the lowest academic achievement in the nation, scandals, violence, waste and political interference.

RSD backers say that in the midst of all the tragedy spawned by the hurricane, it also paved the way for giving New Orleans public schools a second chance.

Offering a counterpoint to that argument was parent after parent who listed grievances about the RSD’s reliance on charter schools to the House Education Committee.

Karen Harper Royal, a parent, testified that her family returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina only to find that the magnet school her son had attended had become a charter — one with different rules, different curricula and no transportation.

The Senate measure did nothing to return charters to traditional public schools. “I want to see schools come back as neighborhood schools, not charters,” Royal said.

The Rev. Willie Calhoun Jr. said many neighborhoods lost their local schools as charters took over and moved their facilities to more affluent areas of town, requiring children to ride city buses across town before the sun rises.

“We’ve been part of this experiment. We’re tired of it,” Pat Bryant said of the charter schools. “If this is allowed to stand, there will be civil disobedience.”

Cynthia Cade, vice chairwoman of the Orleans Parish School Board, pointed out that 40 percent of the 52 RSD-run charters are considered failing in the state’s school grading process. But the 24 schools run by the OPSB have test scores that rank second in the state, she said.

Cade said the school board did not endorse the legislation. She had problems with the makeup of an advisory commission whose membership tilted toward charter school officials. The panel would make recommendations to the RSD and OPSB superintendents who then would decide whether any issues warrant triggering the one-year delay in merging the systems.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” Cade said of the school board’s function. “We were elected.”

Will Sentell, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.?Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog/.