The next 18 months or so may rank among the most pivotal in the history of public education in New Orleans.
In a few weeks, a new slate of members will take their seats on the Orleans Parish School Board, the local governing body that lost control of most city schools after Hurricane Katrina.
A few months after that, the last handful of traditional schools operating under board control will very likely be turned into independent charter schools.
And by July 2018, barring some unexpected hitch, the schools taken over by the state in 2005 will come back under the board, all of them also having been chartered.
The result — an all-charter system under a locally elected board — will be a closely watched experiment in the way a public school system can operate. New Orleans will become the first urban district in the U.S. where the roles of school board and superintendent have been so completely transformed.
In most big cities over most of the past century, the board and superintendent have hired the teachers, set the curriculum, negotiated with unions and doled out big contracts to companies that provide buses or janitorial services.
In New Orleans, the school board and superintendent will do none of those things. All of that will be left to the schools themselves, managed as autonomous nonprofit groups under charter contracts with the board.
“It’s another first: a new kind of school district,” said Douglas Harris, who runs Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. “In some ways, this change is actually more significant than the changes that came before, from a national standpoint, because it is a redefinition of what a school district is.”
He added, “This is what most of the reformers would like to see happen in the cities they’re in — Detroit and other places. So they’re paying attention.”
Charter schools have spread rapidly in other big cities around the country, but they often exist outside the established school system, authorized by state officials or a local university and operating alongside a large number of traditional schools.
The question for New Orleans is whether the new system here can preserve academic gains made over the past decade — the subject of unending controversy — and continue to improve test scores and graduation rates.
However much opinions may differ on the charter movement, no one thinks that the progress to date has been enough.
Before the state took over most New Orleans schools and began turning them over to charters a few at a time, most were officially “failing,” where just a handful are today.
Yet more than a quarter of city schools are rated a “D,” often meaning that barely half of their students are passing standardized exams in reading and math. More than a third have earned only a “C.”
The new school system’s big test will be deciding what to do about those schools, given slow or even nonexistent progress at some of them.
A ‘perfect storm’
The obvious question about a system where so much decision-making has been ceded to individual school leaders is what a central office can actually do to improve education.
The way state officials in Louisiana have gone about the job offers a window on how the city’s new school system will operate, and the challenges involved.
Earlier this month, the state superintendent of education, John White, went to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education with recommendations about whether to offer charter renewals for nearly a dozen schools in New Orleans.
Charters have to win renewal every few years, and if they haven’t reached certain academic goals, they can be shut down or turned over to other charter operators.
James Swanson, the head of a charter group called the Choice Foundation, which runs three schools, took a seat at the microphone in front of the board and asked it to buck White’s recommendation.
One of the group’s schools, McDonogh 42 in the 7th Ward, had notched a performance score just a point and a half below the state’s cutoff.
Describing what he called a “perfect storm,” Swanson pleaded for more time, explaining that Mac 42’s principal had quit mid-year, taking a group of teachers with her, and that students had been forced to move into a set of trailers in a different neighborhood during renovations.
“We’re running a good operation,” Swanson said. “And if we have the opportunity, we would turn this school around. … I really firmly believe that.”
The board hardly discussed it. Come next fall, the Choice Foundation is out, and some other charter organization, with its own principal and teachers, will have a shot at running McDonogh 42.
This is the kind of power local officials in New Orleans will have over schools when they return from state control. They won’t get to say which teachers get hired or which textbooks get used, but they can pull the plug if the results aren’t up to par.
As Tulane’s Harris points out, “It essentially creates a new kind of power that didn’t exist,” because a school board in a traditional district is rarely able to shut a school or make wholesale changes in its personnel.
Typically the board would be constrained by a union contract protecting employees from being fired; teachers and administrators dismissed from one school would have to be placed elsewhere.
With charters, the schools themselves are the employers, and they typically operate without unions.
Harris’ research group put out findings this year showing that closures and takeovers accounted for a significant chunk of the improvement in test scores New Orleans has seen over the past few years: somewhere between 25 percent and 40 percent of the gains.
The Orleans Parish School Board already oversees about two dozen of its own charters. But most of those schools were high-performing before the state takeover or else have opened only within the past few years. The board has only once had to make a decision about what to do with a failing school.
So the shift to local control has provoked anxiety among charter supporters.
From their point of view, things could go wrong in two ways. The local board and superintendent could go soft and let failing or mediocre charter schools continue operating year after year. Or, less realistically, they could attempt a reversion to the old school system by simply refusing to grant any new charter renewals, gradually returning schools to direct control by a central office as charter contracts expire.
The latter scenario seems almost out of the question, at least in the near term. None of the candidates who won seats on the School Board in November did so by promising to roll back the charter movement. Henderson Lewis Jr., the superintendent, has embraced the idea of an all-charter district. The schools themselves would lobby fiercely against any such move.
Whether the local district will continue closing schools or turning them over to new operators in the way the state has is less clear.
The politics of doing so will inevitably take on a different character when the decision shifts to a local board. The state board is elected from districts around the state, with three appointees of the governor. A member of the board from Shreveport doesn’t have to worry about whether a decision irks voters in New Orleans, and only one member is elected chiefly by city residents.
That’s one reason why the state takeover was controversial in the first place: the loss of direct democratic control over decision-makers.
It’s also the reason why some don’t see the impending shift to the local board as a true return of local control.
The state law spelling out how the transition will play out, known as Act 91, contains a fail-safe provision aimed at stiffening the spine of local officials when decisions come up about whether to open, renew or close schools.
As with the state, the local superintendent will make a recommendation to the board, but the law requires that board members will have to muster a super-majority of five members on the seven-member panel to veto his decision. They also need a super-majority to remove the superintendent.
The idea is to place a buffer between the official making the difficult calls and the voters who might demand one decision or another from the board.
“These are hard decisions,” said Leslie Jacobs, a former School Board member who has remained an influential voice in the charter movement. “I’ve never met someone who thought their school should be closed.”
Jacobs and others lobbied hard at the Legislature for the super-majority rule, and she argues the board and superintendent will have to be active managers to improve results.
“If they’re unwilling to allow good operators to expand, if they're not willing to take action against bad operators, than our academic results will go down,” she said. “This can’t just be left on autopilot.”
The locals who opposed the charter takeover don’t see much hope in this type of local control, even though they’ve been lobbying to bring schools back under the School Board’s watch for a decade.
They see closures and takeovers as fruitless and overly punitive, not to mention disruptive to families and children.
Switching operators also doesn’t always work, even if the strategy has improved test scores overall. McDonogh 42, before the Choice Foundation took it over, was run by the Treme Charter School Association, which fell short of the state’s demands four years ago.
“It’s ridiculous to say we’re going to take the school from the Choice Foundation and give it to somebody else, as if that’s going to make a difference,” said Karran Harper Royal, a longtime activist who now coordinates an effort called the Louisiana Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, part of a national pushback against the charter movement.
A new leader
How to balance these competing arguments and improve schools is now in large part a question for Lewis, the superintendent hired by the board last year.
He has until July 2018 to hash out all the particulars of how the new school system will operate once state-run schools return, more than 50 of them in all. An overarching framework won board approval in August, but many of the details are still up in the air.
First there are a set of functions that his own staff will have to manage, even in an all-charter district. They include enrollment, which was centralized a few years ago under the state; a hearing office for students facing expulsion; and a relatively new program for students with the most severe mental health needs.
At the same time, a special task force that Lewis convened is drawing up revised policies for opening and closing charters.
In an interview last week, Lewis was careful not to talk about details before that task force has completed its work, but he did not signal any kind of retreat from the state’s hard-line approach to charter renewals.
“The next wave of our work is how to get the ‘D’ schools to the next level,” Lewis said, adding that whatever set of standards is adopted by the task force and approved by the board “is what we’re going to follow and hold schools accountable.”
Under Act 91, state schools remain on the same renewal schedule after they return to the board. A dozen will be up for review in December 2018, the first set of renewals after unification.
And it’s not just the regularly scheduled renewals where Lewis may have difficult decisions to make.
His office will be responsible for making sure schools not only achieve academically but also follow the law. High-profile scandals over the past decade have led to several school closures, and they always bring questions about the charter movement as a whole.
Last year, for instance, the state closed a charter called Lagniappe Academies for discouraging students with special needs from enrolling and for failing to provide services for those who did. The school even went as far as faking documents and setting up a mock special-needs classroom when investigators showed up, according to state officials.
Yet the decision to deny Lagniappe a charter renewal nevertheless drew opposition from some parents who didn’t want to see their children’s school disrupted.
Lewis said he more or less agreed with the state’s decision, given that Lagniappe students were given priority in next year’s enrollment, meaning they would be first in line for seats at other schools.
A related question for Lewis and his board is whether they have the resources to be an effective check on scofflaws and also handle jobs like enrollment.
A traditional district collects all of the federal, state and local tax money dedicated to local schools. In New Orleans, all money will flow directly to the charter groups, with only a 2 percent fee remaining for the central office.
Lewis was circumspect on the question but didn’t rule out the idea that 2 percent might not be enough. He said he was committed to living within his means, making sure charters follow the law and proving that the board can be a good steward of the money it has.
But he acknowledged that there may be a point where “for us to be the best district we can be, we need to talk about some other number than 2 percent.”