Some New Orleans Schools May Return to Local Control

Published November 17, 2010

Since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, most schools in the Big Easy have been under the state’s control.

Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek says the era of state oversight may soon come to an end.

Under Pastorek’s proposal, schools that meet certain academic education standards will have the option to leave the Recovery School District (RSD). In the case of charter schools it would be left to the charter board to decide whether to sign up with a locally governed board or stay in the RSD. State officials would determine whether a non-charter is eligible to leave the RSD.

School’s Performance Decides
To be eligible to leave the RSD, a school must no longer be in the “academically unacceptable” category, determined by the school’s performance scores. In addition, the school is required to have met achievement growth targets for the preceding two years.

The option to leave the RSD would begin in the 2012-2013 school year.

Another part of the plan includes the restructuring or closing of schools that have failed to improve after five years. Since a majority of the 22 state-run schools fall into that group, they could face closure unless they convert into charter schools.

Currently it appears about 12 schools may qualify for the option of leaving the RSD next year.

Pastorek has called on New Orleans city officials to provide recommendations for whether the struggling schools should fall under control of the Orleans Parish School Board or a completely new entity.

‘They Get Out of the Way’
Pastorek convened a public hearing on the plan in October, and Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to vote on the proposal December 9.

“I think state superintendent Paul Pastorek has outlined a very sensible plan,” said Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation in California.

“The high-performing recovery district schools that would be eligible to choose to stay in the recovery district or return to local control will have complete control over that decision,” noted Snell, who has taken several trips to New Orleans to observe the progress there firsthand. “Currently, the high performing recovery district schools place a very high value on their autonomy. This will be critical in their decision-making.

“They have to be confident that the New Orleans Parish school board will continue to respect their autonomy before they change to local control,” Snell explained. She noted several charter school principals have expressed trepidation about local leadership.

“They’ve said in the press, ‘We’re not ready to go back now. The good thing about the RSD is they leave us alone. They give us money, hold us accountable, and get out of the way.'”

Recommendations for Charters
“Charter schools should leave the recovery district only if they have a clear commitment from the school district to maintain autonomy in exchange for accountability,” Snell recommends.

She adds, however, the Orleans Parish School Board is not necessarily hostile to charters.

“The majority of the 16 schools they currently operate are charter schools,” Snell said. “The key is that it will be up to each charter school to choose their governance structure.”

Kevin Kane, president of Pelican Institute for Public Policy in New Orleans, said he agrees with Pastorek’s plan in general, but he says, “The issue is still very much in flux.”

“Many important decisions regarding the supervision of charters have yet to be made,” said Kane, who serves on the board of an organization that operates two charter schools. “But I do believe Pastorek is committed to protecting the autonomy of charters.”

Autonomy Is Key
“It is important for schools to retain autonomy, regardless of whether [charter schools] are being supervised by the local school board, the state, or some other governing body,” Kane said. “Schools need the freedom to hire and fire, set curriculum, and establish their own culture. The governing bodies should hold schools accountable for meeting certain benchmarks without getting in the way.”

“Important decisions have yet to be made, and there could be quite a battle between those who favor choice and flexibility and those who favor central planning,” he said.

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas.