Lawmakers keep their eyes on the ball _lowres

Senator Karen Carter Peterson

Almost everyone involved seems to agree that public schools in New Orleans should return to local control — that the voice of local voters in education should be restored after more than a decade of supervision by state officials.

But little goes uncontested in the realm of public education, and the details of how that return will play out have created new fault lines and reinforced some of the old ones.

State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, has introduced a bill that seems to be the closest thing yet to a successful compromise that would return all of the New Orleans schools taken over by the state after Hurricane Katrina to the Orleans Parish School Board.

It’s the result of painstaking negotiations over several weeks aimed at restoring the role of the board without impinging on the independence that charter schools have enjoyed under the state — an independence that many credit for lifting test scores.

Where anyone stands on the bill, which got the Senate Education Committee’s OK last week, depends in part on their view of the state takeover in the first place.

Before the vote, the New Orleans Tribune, calling the schools “stolen,” published an editorial characterizing Peterson’s bill as “duplicitous and misleading.”

The Tribune objected to provisions aimed at ensuring schools that return will remain autonomous. All 52 schools that still operate under the state-run Recovery School District are now charter schools; publicly funded but independently run, they are wary of interference from a central office.

Given how much autonomy the charters would retain, the Tribune argued, Peterson’s bill only “pretends to transfer schools back” to the OPSB.

Supporters of this view favor a bill authored by state Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans. A terse couple of paragraphs — Peterson’s bill is 11 pages — that bill would simply transfer back to the local board any school no longer designated by the state as “failing.”

Under Bouie’s bill, the schools would presumably remain charters, but unlike Peterson’s measure, it offers no written guarantees about what the school board would or would not have the authority to do.

On the other end of the ideological spectrum are those who cannot stomach either bill.

These charter school advocates feel the RSD has been successful in New Orleans but fear that success is still fragile. And they worry the OPSB isn’t ready to take on important central-office functions that have been tailor-made for a unique school system and that heretofore have been run by the state. These include the central enrollment process and the expulsion hearing office.

For these advocates, the fact that Peterson’s bill stipulates a firm deadline for all schools to return — 2019 at the latest — is a deal-breaker.

“I am very much in favor of return,” said Adam Hawf, a former RSD official who argued against Peterson’s bill at the Legislature last week. “But I think it is an extraordinary amount of risk we are taking. I think that our reform, our progress in New Orleans, is too fragile to take this risk, and a bill that says we’re going to return all the schools by 2019, irrespective of what happens between now and then, feels like a risk too far for me.”

Hawf’s opposition was a striking demonstration of how Peterson’s bill has divided the charter school community in New Orleans.

He addressed the Senate Education Committee just a few minutes after a group of charter school leaders who helped negotiate the details of the bill had urged lawmakers to pass it. Among them was Jay Altman, the head of a charter group called Firstline Schools, where Hawf used to work.

Complicating matters was the OPSB itself. The board had voted 4-1 the evening before to endorse Bouie’s bill, rather than Peterson’s.

For those already skeptical of returning schools to local control, the vote seemed to reinforce how unpredictable school board politics can be. It also suggested that the board’s new superintendent, Henderson Lewis Jr., wasn’t on the same page as the people who hired him. Lewis was closely involved in crafting the language of Peterson’s bill, which, given the support of other New Orleans lawmakers, has much better odds of passing than Bouie’s.

After waking to news of the board’s vote, Sen. Conrad Appel, a Metairie Republican who sits on the Senate Education Committee, said, “I came this close to calling Sen. Peterson and saying, ‘I’m out of here.’ ”

Appel asked the charter leaders who came out in support of the Peterson bill to explain how they could still back it, given the board’s decision, and Altman acknowledged that it gave him “great discomfort,” even if it did not ultimately blunt his support for Peterson’s legislation.

For their part, the board members who voted to back Bouie’s bill said the provisions in Peterson’s legislation are unnecessary to safeguard the independence of the city’s schools, given that state law already spells out the rights of charter schools. They pointed out that most of the two dozen campuses still overseen by the OPSB are themselves charters and haven’t had any cause to complain about meddling from board members.

“I believe the bill does nothing but create a lot of unnecessary noise,” said board member Nolan Marshall Jr., referring to Peterson’s bill. “Most of what the charters want is already in the law. They would just like it to be emphatic, which is unnecessary.”

Another board member, Leslie Ellison, said she agrees that charter autonomy is critical but said state lawmakers shouldn’t be hemming in the board with rules that don’t apply elsewhere in Louisiana. “You have the state dictating to a local governing authority how to oversee or govern its schools,” she said.

Still, Peterson’s bill has a much broader base of support, including most of the New Orleans delegation at the Legislature and, crucially, an influential group of New Orleans school leaders who helped draft it.

It is difficult to imagine those leaders getting behind Bouie’s bill, not just because of what it says but also because of Bouie’s evident hostility to the RSD and the role that it has played in New Orleans over the past decade.

He addressed the Senate Education Committee last week as well, calling the original law that allowed for the expansion of charters in New Orleans a “state-sanctioned experiment.” In 20 minutes of back-and-forth, he used the word “experiment” more than a dozen times, and he insisted that the state takeover has not worked.

“I believe that there are some schools that are doing 1,000 percent better, but I know for a fact that most of the schools are not,” he said.

Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, after hearing Bouie mention in passing that his wife heads the board of a New Orleans charter group, asked him if she also is experimenting on children.

Bouie didn’t flinch, although he ended on a somewhat ambiguous note.

“Yes sir, Senator,” Bouie said, explaining that he is not actually opposed to charter schools. “As citizens of the city of New Orleans, we care about the children, and so we got involved in the charters.”