The remaining handful of traditional public schools in Orleans Parish may finally be turned into independent charter schools, making New Orleans the first big city in the U.S. to have an all-charter system.
Henderson Lewis Jr., the superintendent of the Orleans Parish School Board, which runs the city’s five remaining traditional schools, released a short statement Friday saying his office had received “informal expressions of interest” about chartering some or all of them.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but run by private nonprofit groups, have already largely taken over public education in New Orleans.
The School Board authorized the city’s first charter in 1998, and the state-run Recovery School District, which took over most of the city's schools after Hurricane Katrina, gradually converted the dozens of traditional schools under its purview into charters over the course of nearly a decade.
Those schools are now scheduled to come back under the jurisdiction of the Orleans Parish School Board, thanks to an act of the Legislature, but their status as charters and their independence have been cemented in law.
Supporters of the charter movement give credit for rising test scores to the flexibility these schools have in establishing their own policies and operating without unionized teachers.
Detractors see charters as a movement to privatize public education and question whether they have really improved academic results as much as advertised.
It wasn’t clear why Lewis, who was hired by the board last year, chose this time to announce the potential interest in chartering the board's last five traditional schools. He has not previously suggested that those schools should be chartered, though he has talked about giving their principals the same kind of autonomy that charter leaders enjoy.
The School Board is scheduled to review charter applications over the next few months, with final decisions coming in May. So the five schools in question — Mahalia Jackson Elementary, Mary Bethune Elementary, Ben Franklin Elementary, Eleanor McMain Secondary and McDonogh 35 High School — could presumably be converted into charters for the 2017-18 school year.
A charter group, either one of those already established in the city or a newly formed organization, would have to propose chartering one or more of the schools and get approval from the School Board.
Like all charters, those schools would then be responsible for hitting certain academic benchmarks; failing to do so could mean being closed down or else turned over to other operators.
Some of the remaining traditional schools are already relatively high-performing, which suggests their current leadership might form the core of a new charter group or be absorbed into an existing one. Bethune, for instance is rated a “B” by the state, one of the few schools in New Orleans to score that well.
In his statement, Lewis said the district would be able to provide more details after next week, once officials are through “informing School Board members, staff, principals, teachers and families” about the potential shift.