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The Future of New Orleans Schools

A school district with one of the most broad-based school choice plans in the country may be in for some big changes, and the possibility has many in New Orleans stirred up.

 Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek has issued a proposal to start allowing the transfer of schools out of the Recovery School District, a state-operated jurisdiction that has attracted national attention for turning around failing schools after Hurricane Katrina, frequently using charter schools as a fulcrum for change. Transfers could begin in the 2012-13 school year.  

The debate for many centers on a question of local control vs. state takeover, according to a recent story and follow-up  in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, with many assuming that schools leaving the Recovery district would move to the Orleans Parish School Board, which the Times-Picayune notes was “stripped of all but 16 of the city’s best schools in the post-Katrina reorganization” because the schools were failing. The newspaper said charter school operators and parents also are expressing wariness about leaving the Recovery incubator, with its successful track record and unusual levels of autonomy. With the Recovery district, charters now outnumber traditional public schools in New Orleans 2 to 1.

But a move to the Orleans Parish board would not be guaranteed. Pastorek’s proposal includes a provision for “the City of New Orleans to affirm that it wishes to continue with the governance structure represented by the Orleans Parish School Board, substitute it with a different governing body or provide an additional authorizing entity, or otherwise establish a governing structure that is suitable to manage the kinds of schools that have been developed in the Recovery School District.” Further, transfer would not be automatic. Only schools that met certain academic criteria would be eligible, and those schools would have the freedom to choose whether to stay in the Recovery district or move. The plan includes transfer procedures for schools run by the Recovery district as well as independent charter schools, which would sign MOUs with the new governing entity. Schools not academically eligible for transfer would be required to stay in the recovery district “until eligible for transfer.”  The Recovery district oversees 23 traditional schools and 46 charters in New Orleans, according to its Web site.

Pastorek’s proposal would require the state board of education to ensure that schools choosing to leave the Recovery district, known as RSD, “are afforded conditions and expectations that provide support and oversight similar to their experiences in the RSD, which led to their improved performance.” The new arrangement must protect the schools’ autonomy, set clear academic goals, provide support, and guarantee funding levels. The Recovery district gives its schools unusual freedoms, including control over hiring and firing and length of the school day and year, with the provision that failure to improve will lead to closure, restructuring or conversion to charters.

The Orleans Parish district restructured its school board and operations after Katrina and now oversees both charter and traditional public schools. Recently, the local district began publicizing its readiness to take on additional schools from Recovery. One flier entitled “We are Ready!” highlights academic achievements of schools still under the board’s control and ticks off fiscal improvements since Katrina.

The Recovery district was created as a temporary solution for resuscitating failing schools, with the authority to operate schools put under its jurisdiction for at least five years. The state law creating the special district required the state and Recovery superintendents to come up with a recommendation for the future of schools under the Recovery district’s control by the end of the five-year period, which occurs this fall.   

The Cowen Institute at Tulane, a think tank dedicated to education reform that was created after Katrina, issued a paper criticizing Pastorek’s proposal for providing too little detail on some important points. For example, the institute says the proposal should include a detailed, proactive plan for immediately overhauling a group of schools that have failed to improve significantly under the Recovery district’s control, including five high schools that the district has said it eventually plans to convert to charter schools. The Cowen paper also puts too many constraints on the Orleans Parish board as conditions for receiving transfer schools.

 The state board of education is scheduled to vote on the proposal in December.

 FOR MORE INFORMATION

Read these papers from the NCSC archives about charter school governance and operations.

Charter School Governance

When urban school districts innovate: The politics of turning around low performing school organizations through charter schools

Charter School Outcomes in California

What Happens When Regular Public Schools Convert to Charter Schools?

School Choice Options, Instructional Conditions, and Student Achievement Gains

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The NCSC is funded by a 5 year, $13.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. Its lead institution is Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The center is housed on the campus of Peabody College, one of the nation's top graduate schools of education.