Officials are getting ready to revise how public education funding works in New Orleans, and the city’s most sought-after public schools — the ones with admissions standards and grade-A rankings — are alarmed by the possible outcome.
Debate over how to structure a new funding formula has absorbed local educators for the past few months, the subject of tense committee meetings and dire warnings to parents.
On one side are campuses like Lusher Charter School and Ben Franklin High School, magnet schools that regularly produce some of the best test scores in the state. On the other side are many of the city’s open-enrollment schools, which are required by law to take all comers.
They’ve split over how much extra funding schools should receive for students with special needs, as well as for students designated as “gifted and talented.” Lusher, Franklin and a few other schools want to hold onto the extra money they get for exceptionally high-performing students; the open-enrollment schools stand to benefit from extra cash for students who need extra help, whom they enroll in much greater numbers.
It’s a dust-up tinged with the kind of racial and class tensions that have long dogged the city’s magnet schools. Defended as a way to keep and attract families that might otherwise flee to the suburbs, selective campuses always have highlighted New Orleans’ stark inequities, enrolling a much higher proportion of students from middle-class families.
To some degree, the dispute also has pitted schools that remained under the Orleans Parish School Board after Hurricane Katrina against those taken over by the state. Overall, the schools under state supervision enroll more of the city’s special-needs students and those from poor families.
With a final vote on the funding formula scheduled to happen at the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting next month, school administrators are preparing for a fight.
In an email last month, Lusher CEO Kathy Riedlinger told parents that her school stands to lose more than $1.2 million annually, which other officials dispute. She said successful schools like Lusher would be “gutted” to fund “historically underperforming and mismanaged schools under the guise that the successful schools educate ‘privileged’ students.”
The widely circulated email set eyes rolling among the city’s open-enrollment school principals.
Shawn Toranto, the CEO of Einstein Charter School in New Orleans East, fired off a letter calling Riedlinger’s email, and a separate note sent to parents at Ben Franklin, “a disappointing political stunt.”
Toranto seemed especially annoyed that other school leaders would go public with criticisms even while they were sitting on the task force that is still negotiating a new formula. “Frankly, after reading the misinformation in these letters, I question certain school leaders’ sincere participation on this committee,” she wrote.
The committee in question, established by the Legislature last year, has met four times over the past few months and will meet once more before it sends a recommendation to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for a vote.
The group’s job is to create one formula for per-pupil spending that will apply to all of the city’s charter schools. Right now, separate schemes apply for charters under the Orleans Parish School Board — which governs the selective-admission campuses, among others — and those under the Recovery School District, the state agency that took over most of the city’s public schools after Katrina. (The formula will not apply to the small handful of traditional schools that still operate under the local board.)
The selective campuses fear the state board ultimately will approve a formula for the whole city that is closer to what the RSD has been using.
Under that formula, adopted a few years ago, extra funding for special-needs students increases with the intensity of the services they require — and there’s no extra money for gifted and talented pupils.
Students fall into one of five “tiers” based on their particular disability and the minutes of extra attention they require per week. The additional funding per student can range from $1,484 to $22,257 a year.
Under the formula used by the Orleans Parish School Board, all special-needs students — no matter the severity of their disability — bring an extra $3,236.
It’s easy to see why some schools are opposed to the tiered approach. According to projections circulated among committee members at one point, Lusher’s annual funding this year under the RSD’s formula would have amounted to about $13.3 million, instead of the $14.5 million it got.
An open-enrollment school like ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy, meanwhile, would have gotten about $5.8 million under the School Board’s formula, compared with $6.2 under the Recovery School District’s.
Lusher’s attorney, James Brown, said the school’s leadership is in favor of special-needs funding. But he questioned why New Orleans needs a different formula from the rest of the state and argued that taking care of special-needs students shouldn’t come at the expense of others. “Schools elsewhere aren’t being asked to suffer these cuts, only in New Orleans,” he said.
Alisa Dupre, operations manager at the selective Audubon Charter School, said, “All children are entitled to an excellent public education, so to take from one school and put it into another school is not the right thing to do.”
On the other hand, advocates for the RSD’s approach argue that even under the tiered formula, schools aren’t fully compensated for the special-needs services they provide. Students with the most severe disabilities often need full-time aides. And now that most schools in the city operate as independent charters, they get less support from a central office than traditional schools do.
Those advocates also point out that the committee has been discussing a rule that would keep any school from losing more than 2 percent of its funding in a given year as a result of the new formula, a move aimed at softening the blow and allowing schools to plan for losses.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been advocating for special-needs students in New Orleans for years, is in favor of the tiered approach.
“For too long, we have witnessed schools unable to provide programming to meet the needs of students with disabilities” and those who need to learn English, “in large part because our decentralized system could not create the economies of scale necessary to properly afford critical educational programming for our most vulnerable children,” said Jennifer Coco, a staff attorney for the group.
Part of the thinking behind the RSD’s formula is to take away any incentive that schools would have to push out or avoid enrolling disabled students, although putting up extra dollars for those students leaves open the possibility of manipulation as well.
Administrators at an RSD school called SciTech Academy were sanctioned last year for, among other reasons, allegedly trying to inflate the number of service minutes their special-needs students required, apparently to help fill a $300,000 budget gap.