The fight over how to divvy up state funding for public schools in New Orleans now heads to court.
After several hours of impassioned testimony from school leaders, parents and students, the Orleans Parish School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night on a motion granting the board’s superintendent, Henderson Lewis Jr., discretion to implement a new funding formula for all but a handful of the city’s public schools.
The board’s vote will in effect boost the number of dollars assigned to pupils with disabilities and put a dent in budgets at selective-admission magnet schools such as Lusher Charter School and Lake Forest Charter Elementary School, which enroll fewer students with special needs and stand to lose some funding for students designated as “gifted and talented.”
Those schools have threatened a lawsuit, but they largely ceded the public debate Tuesday evening to the new formula’s proponents, clearly wagering that a court battle offered them a better chance of success than a public-relations one.
The only speaker on their side was James Brown, the attorney hired by Lusher and Lake Forest to pursue litigation.
Brown told board members the proposed formula would violate the contracts those schools have signed with the board, which stipulate how they’re supposed to be funded. Almost every public school in New Orleans is a charter and thus operates under a similar agreement.
Brown said handing the OPSB’s superintendent discretion to tweak the funding formula as he sees fit would violate not only the law but the spirit of the charter movement, which is centered on giving school leaders the autonomy to make their own budget decisions.
“The charter school movement is designed to prevent any government official from having too much power,” Brown said. “And that is the central legal flaw in what is happening here.”
The board’s vote took place amid considerable confusion about what members were actually voting on. What they ultimately passed was aimed at giving Lewis the authority to carry out the new formula with as much legal cover as possible.
It was the culmination of a process that began with a law passed by the Legislature last year, known as Act 467. It created a working group of local school leaders and others to draw up a funding formula that would apply to all of the city’s charter schools.
Until now, the Recovery School District, a state agency that took over most city schools after Hurricane Katrina, and the OPSB, which kept the higher-performing campuses, operated under separate schemes. But with a consensus building for some kind of return of most schools to local control, officials have been pushing for a unified formula.
The result, approved by the 12-member working group by a vote of 10-1, with one abstention, was a tiered formula that assigns an increasing number of dollars for each student depending on how intensive a special need they have, with extra dollars also set aside for students who are over-aged or learning English for the first time.
That approach was almost sure to draw opposition from the handful of public schools with admissions requirements, which enroll fewer of those students.
Aware of potential lawsuits, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education passed a framework for the new formula earlier this month but left it to local officials to formally approve the dollar amounts that come with each type of student.
That left the formula in a sort of legal limbo. The original state law said BESE would sign off on the working group’s plan, but it never stipulated a specific role for the OPSB.
Despite those concerns, Tuesday’s meeting was dominated by the rest of the city’s schools, more than 90 percent of which have publicly backed the new formula. Several dozen speakers spoke in favor of the new methodology, including several parents who have gifted and talented students enrolled at selective campuses.
A student from Lusher translated for a group of Spanish-speaking students, who pleaded for the extra money allocated to English-language learners.
“Please invest a little extra money in us,” they told the board. “We want to own our own businesses, become doctors, attend universities.”
Elizabeth Ostberg, founder of the NET Charter School, said nearly a quarter of her students have special needs, and 90 percent arrive scoring below grade level on state exams. She mentioned an 18-year-old who dropped out of another school after being told she was “too dumb to learn” because of an undiagnosed intellectual disability.
“This year she became pregnant and re-enrolled with us,” Ostberg said. “Despite the enormous odds she’s facing, we believe this young lady can earn a diploma.”
Amanda Aiken, the principal at Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep, recalled a student who arrived at her school unable to walk or even feed herself. Aiken said the girl needed a full-time aide, among other services. But within a few months, she had taken her first step.
“It cost over $65,000 for that first step,” she said.