By any statistical measure, the state takeover of New Orleans schools has been a towering success.
Between 2004 and 2014, the share of students scoring basic and above on the LEAP tests nearly doubled, from 33 percent to 57 percent. Graduation rates rose from 54 percent to 73 percent, ACT scores climbed, and so did TOPS eligibility.
But the state takeover was not designed to last forever, and even supporters of the Recovery School District seem to acknowledge that the time has come to return the schools to control of a local elected school board.
The preferred vehicle of that transition is Senate Bill 432 by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans. It provides a charter-friendly environment, protecting the schools against political interference from the board on matters like collective bargaining. Under the measure, a broad-based advisory committee would oversee the gradual process of reunification over several years.
The state takeover has enjoyed bipartisan support for more than a decade, and reformers hope the charter culture has sufficiently taken root in New Orleans and that the archipelago of successful schools will continue to operate independently, no matter how things go on the school board.
That’s a significant risk.
The Orleans Parish School Board of the pre-Katrina years was a circus, with chaotic meetings, jaw-dropping scandals and wearying indifference to the needs of its students.
The current OPSB oversees only 24 of 76 schools, and it has not been the civic embarrassment of its predecessors.
Still, its chairman, Ira Thomas, took a bribe to influence a janitorial contract. The panel took two tumultuous years to find a superintendent.
And the OPSB sent a discouraging sign when it voted 4-1 to back an alternative bill, House Bill 1108 by state Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans, which does not include the safeguards against interference that make the Peterson legislation a superior choice. Board members Leslie Ellison, Cynthia Cade, John Brown and Nolan Marshall Jr. were on the wrong side of that issue. Woody Koppel opposed the Bouie bill, and Seth Bloom and Sarah Usdin were absent.
New Orleanians have been famously apathetic about who serves on the OPSB, as often happens in communities with a powerful parochial school culture. Predictably, the boards of the past were typically concerned more with the people who make money off education — the employees or the vendors — than the students who are supposed to be receiving one.
Voters will pick a new OPSB this fall. A decade from now, if they do not pay attention, the revival of public education in New Orleans — and the post-storm Renaissance of the city itself — may be a distant memory.