A few years ago in New Orleans, you couldn’t have paid some Recovery School District charter schools to switch to the Orleans Parish School Board.
The OPSB, which for years had been mired in corruption, had in some respects cleaned house after Hurricane Katrina and the state takeover of most of the city’s public schools, which were transferred to the RSD until they improved enough to switch back to the local board’s oversight.
But frequent spats among board members, the panel’s protracted search for a permanent superintendent and daunting logistics were just some of the reasons leaders of most charter schools wanted to have nothing to do with the local board even after they became eligible to join its list of schools.
These days, though, a charter-friendly administration is turning the tide. If negotiations bear fruit, at least three schools — Lake Area New Tech Early College High School in Gentilly, Pierre A. Capdau Charter School in Mid-City and KIPP Renaissance High School in Bywater — will enter the OPSB’s ranks July 1.
They would join Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward, which made history last year as the first RSD school to switch to OPSB oversight.
Although three out of more than three dozen schools eligible to make the switch are by no means a vast sweep — most charter school leaders, while impressed by the local board’s changes, remain wary of it for several reasons — each switch is a triumph for Henderson Lewis, who is nearing the one-year mark as the parish school superintendent and who has made reunification of all the city’s schools his mantra.
In the past, charter school officials, by and large, gave perfunctory reasons for declining to join the OPSB’s ranks, Lewis said. But now, he said, even those who end up staying in the RSD are saying, “Let me truly get an understanding of how OPSB operates. Let me have an understanding of the policies.”
Brewing in the background is a larger debate over the Recovery School District’s permanence, which is expected to play out a second time among state lawmakers this spring.
The state district was created in 2003 to take control of failing schools and turn them around. It was expected to release them back to the local board’s control once they had “recovered.” However, a later policy change gave the independent boards of improved charter schools the option to decide whether to leave the RSD or stay.
Critics of that change say leaving the decision up to individual schools’ boards means many will never return to local control, while supporters say improved schools should decide their own fates.
Whether charter schools are associated with the RSD or the OPSB, they will remain autonomous in their day-to-day operations, with their independent boards continuing to run the school, setting policy and making budget decisions.
In all, 33 of the 52 schools under the RSD earned school performance scores last year high enough to qualify them to return to the OPSB if they wish. To qualify, they must have operated within the RSD for five years and must have scored at least 54, or 4 points above the failing bar, on a 150-point scale for two years.
Each charter school’s board must choose by March 1 whether to stay with the RSD or go over to the OPSB. Almost all have done so; two down-to-the-wire votes will come this week from the boards of Mary D. Coghill Charter School in Pontchartrain Park and Fannie C. Williams Charter School in New Orleans East.
Among this year’s additions to the OPSB fold, two are particularly striking: Pierre Capdau, the first school in Louisiana to enter the RSD, and KIPP Renaissance, run by the local arm of a national face of the “no excuses” charter model. Aimed at sparking high achievement among low-income students, that approach is frequently touted as the antithesis to that of traditional school districts.
KIPP New Orleans has always believed in “a strong local governing body,” Executive Director Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise said, and sending one of KIPP’s five eligible schools to the OPSB seemed appropriate. It “was a way for us to say, ‘OK, let’s do this in a really thoughtful way,’ ” she said.
She said the OPSB’s new policies also are impressive.
Those include tweaked rules for the system’s selective-admissions schools, which notably abolish controversial neighborhood preferences and raise the bar for student achievement. Proponents say those rules level charters’ playing field and make top schools more accessible to families, though critics want the OPSB to force the selective schools to pay for private transportation, as open-enrollment charters must.
Lewis said those schools got more flexibility because their neighborhood preference was ended.
Despite the pluses, snags have complicated matters.
Officials at several schools that are staying in the RSD noted its attractive property insurance rates, which Lewis said are cheaper than the OPSB’s rates because of the purchasing power the RSD, a state entity, enjoys. Aluise and the group that manages Lake Area and Pierre Capdau hope to work through the insurance issue in negotiations.
Other leaders, intrigued by the OPSB’s present leadership but wary of its past, seek assurance that the improvements are here to stay.
“What’s left in our mind is the concept of a policy lockbox, which would ensure that the policies we are returning under would remain in place,” said Jean Paul Hymel, chairman of the board that manages the eligible-to-return Akili Academy and Harriet Tubman Charter School.
The often-raised concern is that new OPSB members and a new superintendent could be hostile to charters. School Board elections will take place this fall.
Lewis said his office and the board are reviewing Hymel’s and others’ concerns.
Looming over the debate is a push by some lawmakers to end the RSD. A bill to force sweeping returns of eligible schools died in the state House last year; its author, Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans, has pledged to revive similar legislation.
Charters mostly oppose the idea. Aside from taking away their right to decide their future, last year’s bill and current state law are both problematic because the only trigger for a return is a school’s performance, Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools Executive Director Caroline Roemer said.
“What I would like to see is legislation that ensures that if you make everybody go back, that there are consequences for bad behavior, on the part of both the board and the schools,” she said.
Not even Lewis favors a rushed return of all schools. He is more concerned with proper execution, for the RSD manages several key services that all the parish’s schools use.
“What you don’t want is ... you hit the switch and all of those services, all of those schools, all that stuff happens, on the same day. That’s not a smooth transition,” he said.
Philosophically, though, he still backs a big reunification, a once-derided concept that has become more attractive under his tenure.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect Fannie C. Williams’ upcoming vote.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.