By endorsing Senate Bill 432, the Recovery School District and its administrative staff likely are writing themselves out of employment. SB 432, which would end state takeover of the majority of public schools in New Orleans and eventually return charter schools to the Orleans Parish School Board, raises a broader question: What is the most effective governance structure of public education? This simple, yet profound question surrounding the acrimonious discussion is not just a question facing New Orleans citizens. This proposed legislation likely would reduce the role of the RSD in the rest of the state, including cities such as Baton Rouge and Shreveport. If passed, elected schools boards will increase their involvement in governance and oversight of their local schools.
The widespread success of the majority of public charter schools, through and perhaps despite, their manifold operators, does not necessarily equate to effective governance. By “effective governance” I mean a public space whereby ordinary citizens are allowed a voice for the kind of education the citizenry collectively desires and imagines, including where the physical location of these schools best serves the common good. The current policy debate should not concern itself with the proliferation of charter schools through the consolidation of an institution — the RSD — even though the Legislature readily admits was not etched in stone, no matter how recalcitrant the behavior of local school boards. Rather, a consensus is needed as to what to do with failing institutions such as local school boards.
Public education advocates in Louisiana cannot have it both ways. We cannot continue the century-old tradition of electing local officials — yes, politicians — to oversee our public school systems, while at the same time stripping them of political power and governing authority. Ultimately, it comes down to which body holds the political power and administrative/fiscal control over public schools. As of today, the statewide charter school community, by virtue of its defeat of legislation endorsed by the governor placing limitations on charters, signifies an astonishing political reality. Charter leaders seem to enjoy more clout than the governor. But charter leaders must recognize that raising achievement levels in schools is only the first step in the revolution. The most difficult challenge for the charter movement with its newfound power lies ahead: reimagining leadership and governance in a democratic fashion.
Examples of old solutions to public accountability include electing school board members who were competent to govern and to lead, or to reimagine governance by extending the role of the mayor or city councils. Ironically, providing the mayor the authority to run the schools is what largely gave rise to the rapid expansion of charter schools in New York City, thus paving the way for the leaders of that movement like John White to lead similar campaigns in New Orleans as head of the RSD, and now in Baton Rouge as state superintendent. Why not admit an inconvenient truth: why have elected school boards at all? Indeed, why not simply abolish them?
If the current status of the legislative debate on school governance marks the beginning, or rather the fulfillment, of an indelible trend — wresting control over public education from unions and school boards — we are in need of new ideas. It’s time for the remarkably politically successful charter school movement statewide to take it to the next level.
Luis Miron is director of the Institute for Quality & Equity in Education and a Distinguished University Professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.