More than 10 years after Hurricane Katrina cleared a path for the momentous state takeover of public schools in New Orleans, remaking education here in a widely scrutinized experiment with autonomous charter schools, local educators and lawmakers are negotiating legislation that could bring the era of state control to a close.
In the years since the storm, state lawmakers hostile to the idea of a state-run school district in New Orleans have filed numerous bills aimed at bringing the schools back under local supervision.
But none of them has gone far in the face of opposition from the city’s charter school advocates, who could point to rising test scores, and a Legislature dominated by Republicans, who largely supported the takeover.
The bill filed last week by Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, is still a work in progress, according to people familiar with the negotiations, and amendments are likely when it comes up in committee. There are some key sticking points over exactly how the return to local control would play out, and those could ultimately prevent a broad consensus of support for the bill and hurt its chances.
But local education officials and charter advocates have never come this close to giving their blessing to a return plan. And no previous bill has spelled out with as much detail or deliberation the intricate legal details involved.
Officials at the state-run Recovery School District, the elected Orleans Parish School Board and school leaders themselves all have been involved in the talks. Most of the New Orleans delegation at the Legislature has signed on.
“The bill is a good start, but it’s not yet complete,” said Patrick Dobard, the RSD’s superintendent. Dobard would not discuss specifics, hoping to avoid unsettling the negotiations.
The bill is the culmination of a growing consensus — even among local educators wary of the academic failures and corruption scandals that plagued the local school system before Katrina — that state control in New Orleans should finally end after more than a decade of acrimony over the role of the RSD.
The bill would require that 10 schools be returned to the local board by July 2017 — only a handful have decided to voluntarily return — and that all RSD schools be transferred by the following year.
It would not reconstitute the school system that existed before Katrina. Schools would return as autonomous nonprofit groups, operating at arm’s length from the local school board under individual charter contracts, as they have under the state.
But it would nonetheless be a landmark shift in the history of a one-of-a-kind school system.
Charter supporters give most of the credit for improved academic results in New Orleans to the way that schools are governed, rather than any particular innovations in the classroom.
The new model — in which school leaders get a free hand to shape the curriculum and hire teachers, while elected officials hold them accountable for results — is what mainly sets New Orleans apart from traditional systems across the country, where elected or appointed school boards and superintendents typically call the shots.
Any indication that a reversion to the local board’s supervision might endanger that autonomy could scuttle the return plan.
At the same time, the system as it was set up after Katrina has stirred sharp resentments. The officials who run the RSD answer to the state school board, which has only one member elected chiefly by residents of Orleans Parish. Parents upset over the closing of a school or the quality of services for special-needs students have not always felt they were getting a fair hearing from state officials.
Sheer confusion over how to enroll a child in a city where schools operate on their own and answer to two separate districts has been a source of endless frustration.
The bill under consideration now would adjust those trade-offs, restoring the role of a locally elected board while attempting to safeguard the independence of school leaders.
It is also, at least in part, a vote of confidence in the OPSB’s new superintendent, Henderson Lewis Jr. He’s been on the job for just over a year, overseeing the two dozen schools that either were left under the board’s watch after the storm or have opened under the board since then.
With a mandate to bring the rest of the city’s schools back, Lewis has been working to clear away the remaining barriers. Last fall, he got the OPSB to update the district’s charter school policies. A few weeks ago, he committed to a new funding arrangement for all of the city’s schools that will shift more dollars to pay for special-needs services, a step supported by the overwhelming majority of the city’s charter leaders.
Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise, who heads KIPP New Orleans Schools, one of the biggest charter groups in the city, told OPSB members at a meeting last month, “We’ve seen so many positive changes in OPSB over the past year. You’ve hired a strong superintendent and team. It’s been a pleasure to work with them.”
Devil in the details
Even so, many of the details involved in returning schools to the OPSB have caused anxiety among charter advocates.
Many have spent years working out how to build a system that’s more user-friendly for parents and provides for a measure of government oversight without overburdening schools with red tape.
The results have been a common enrollment system, a shared expulsion hearing office and a special program for students with severe behavior problems, among other things. And so far that’s all been run by the state, rather than the OPSB.
“You’re asking an organization that hasn’t had to run any of these really important elements of the system to take them on,” said Michael Stone, the co-CEO of a group called New Schools for New Orleans that has helped fund and guide the expansion of charters.
Given all that, Stone said, he is concerned about the fixed deadline for bringing all schools back to the OPSB, as well as an “escape-hatch” provision in the bill that he said may not be strong enough.
The bill would establish an 11-member advisory committee to help guide the transition, and that committee could ask the OPSB to consider postponing the return, but only with a two-thirds vote. The OPSB would then also have to approve the delay by a super-majority.
Details aside, Stone said he worries the school board could revert to the kind of dysfunctionality that prevailed before Katrina, once the RSD is removed from the picture.
“An underappreciated aspect of what’s emerged here is the competition, not between charter schools, but between districts,” he said. “There is a symbiotic relationship that is healthy. We essentially invented that in New Orleans and haven’t acknowledged it.”
Still, there is plenty in the bill for those skeptical toward the OPSB to feel good about, including a whole section devoted to ensuring “the appropriate level of autonomy” for schools.
It stipulates a long list of areas where the board won’t be allowed to meddle — everything from instruction and curriculum to building repairs.
Hard to walk away?
With momentum building for some kind of unification, it may be hard for charter proponents to walk away from legislation that reflects their priorities that closely.
Even if Peterson’s bill doesn’t pass, there is always a possibility that some other return bill would clear the Legislature without addressing charter supporters’ concerns.
State Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans, has filed legislation that would automatically return to the OPSB any school that has cleared the state’s “failing” bar, something he also tried to pass during last year’s session.
Even Conrad Appel, a Metairie Republican who sits on the Senate Education Committee and consistently backs the RSD, acknowledged, “We need to find a mechanism to return schools at some time to the school board.” As for Peterson’s bill, he said, “This may be the mechanism.”
Appel said he hadn’t gone over the particulars of the bill yet, but he has asked charter advocates for feedback.
Deirdre Johnson Burel, who runs a group devoted to public engagement called the Orleans Parish Education Network, said people in New Orleans are ready for schools to return to local oversight after 11 years of state control.
“I think it’s an idea whose time has come,” she said. “It might be a lot of hard work, but we can do this and do it together.”