A new report on the nation’s most promising experiment in changing school governance ought to be required reading around the state, where publicly funded but nonprofit-run charter schools are growing.
The report, by the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, focuses on the New Orleans schools, about 50 of them charters moving over the next couple of years from the state’s Recovery School District to the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board.
But the issues raised are more than purely local to New Orleans, and include Baton Rouge and Lafayette, where charters are making sizeable inroads.
Even if the leadership of a school, including its board and in-school leaders, can make significant improvements, that does not divorce a charter school from its neighborhood and related challenges.
"Though schools have improved in the past decade, the quality of schools in specific areas of the city varies greatly," the report said.
One of the great selling points of the charter school experiment is that school-focused governance can do a better job of altering the negative influences in many urban school environments. It is not really surprising that these influences remain obstacles.
College readiness has also been an important component of charters’ appeal. Many schools are now showing results, with the percentage of New Orleans public school students enrolling in college growing from 39 percent in 2004 to 59 percent in 2014, the report said. It noted that how well those students have done in college deserves some detailed study. Although their educational preparation is not the only factor in college success, it's the most important one.
Two important issues that are much in the news, career readiness and special education, require more attention — and not only from charter schools.
Career and technical education in high schools has improved, Cowen’s report said, but more efforts are needed to make sure training is aligned with available jobs. This is likely true even for parishes without a single charter school. The closer integration of schools with business is one of the goals of the career initiatives pushed by state Superintendent John White and school leaders across Louisiana, but the decentralized nature of charter leadership may make it a little more challenging.
The Cowen Institute report also said schools need more resources to ensure that special-needs students, including those with mental health issues, are better-served. That is also one of the statewide goals by White’s department, but again the decentralized nature of charter schools might make it just a bit more of a climb.
We believe in the New Orleans experiment. It is demonstrating gains in a system that under the pre-Katrina School Board was a travesty of public education.
But it is always important to remember that governance, while important, is only one factor in changing school performance and giving every child in our communities the best chance to succeed.