New Orleans is in the midst of a historic transition, with the Orleans Parish School Board regaining local control of its public schools from the Louisiana Recovery School District. This unprecedented transition brings with it much opportunity to ensure every child’s individual needs are met, including students with disabilities.

Following the 2016 passage of Act 91, city officials proactively prepared for this transition, adopting new policies and practices related to special education. For example, due to a recently adopted differentiated funding formula, schools now receive per-student funding according to the time, resources, and type of instruction required to meet individual students’ needs. This move serves as both a stick and carrot, disincentivizing schools who continually enroll students with disabilities at rates much lower than the citywide average, and better supporting those who enroll natural or greater proportions.

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Another notable change is the development of EnrollNOLA, an online unified enrollment system that assigns students to schools based on family preferences and school priorities. This need-blind system guarantees that no school uses the admissions process to discriminate against students with diverse learning needs, with students’ individualized education program status made available only after enrollment. There are opportunities for OPSB to improve EnrollNOLA — such as equipping parents with information on schools’ programs related to educating students with disabilities — but the system, like the differentiated funding formula, demonstrates OPSB’s dedication to equitable processes in a city where, historically, some schools have demonstrated less of a commitment to educating students with disabilities.

The city has made tremendous progress since the Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit against the Louisiana Department of Education in 2010, for its failure to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to educational services. Now that OPSB is fully responsible for local oversight of public education and monitoring school performance and equity, it is charged with maintaining and furthering such progress. OPSB should be commended for developing a robust accountability framework that includes specific metrics related to the quality of services provided to students with disabilities. As OPSB shifts from planning to implementation, the leadership team should define material violations and prioritize quality over compliance and growth over absolute proficiency.

This country has never seen an educational system like this, one comprised entirely of charter schools. OPSB’s future policy and practice changes have the potential to tackle key issues related to providing quality special education and to serve as a model for districts across the country.

Similar to roughly 50 percent of the nation’s charter schools, the majority of New Orleans’ charter schools and networks operate as their own local education agencies, maintaining financial and legal responsibility for providing a full spectrum of special education services to students with a diverse range of disabilities. Without access to the services and resources of a large multi-school district, small schools and networks may significantly struggle in meeting the needs of all students. OPSB can now leverage reunification to build innovative systems that create economies of scale, pool resources and expertise, and enhance collaboration amongst LEAs. It must, however, simultaneously avoid recreating the dysfunctions that too often lead to ineffective programming for students with disabilities and foster overly-restrictive settings.

OPSB can incentivize individual schools to develop much-needed specialized expertise to support students with low-incidence disabilities. To ensure that students with disabilities have access to schools prepared to educate them well, OPSB can also introduce a weighted component to EnrollNola that would give preference to students seeking schools with particular expertise (e.g., all staff members trained to support students with Autism in inclusive classrooms). 

Little of New Orleans’ present-day school district resembles its pre-Hurricane Katrina district. Its significant progress has benefitted students across the board and demonstrated its capacity for leadership in the education reform space. OPSB has the distinct opportunity to extend and expand the innovative ways in which New Orleans can balance robust accountability with school autonomy while promoting and preserving equity for all.

Lauren Morando Rhim, who is based in Norwich, Vermont, is executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. Stephanie Lancet, who is based in New York, is a project specialist at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.