Pastorek: State likely to run New Orleans public schools for years

Pastorek: State likely to run New Orleans public schools for years
August 28, 2009
by Brian Thevenot
The Times-Picayune/

he public schools of New Orleans likely will stay under state control for several more years and might never return to the Orleans Parish School Board, state schools Superintendent Paul Pastorek said Thursday.

Pastorek's comments came in the context of an interview about a new poll released Thursday showing strong support for state-controlled charter schools -- and deep distrust for the locally elected School Board. Pastorek by law must recommend next year whether to maintain the state-run Recovery School District or return schools to local control.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has asked Pastorek to outline a process for crafting that recommendation, and the board likely will consider it publicly during the next few months, he said.

In his most detailed comments on future governance, Pastorek laid out several options, including a phased return of individual schools to the School Board; a return of schools under conditions; or the creation of a new local government entity. And he made clear that although no decision has been made, he favors continuing the status quo beyond next year.

"We've begun an upward trajectory, but it's going to take more time to stabilize that, " he said. "It's a little early to say whether the Orleans Parish School Board is in a position to maintain that upward trajectory."

Though well-intentioned, the local board, with several newly elected members, needs more "seasoning" and isn't prepared to take back schools, he said. Further, the Recovery District and the many charter schools it oversees have not had sufficient time to stabilize reform efforts. The Recovery District's first two years were consumed with crisis management, he said, and so in essence can't be counted as progress toward sustainable reform.

"It takes at least five years for reform to see a stable turnaround of schools, " he said, and the RSD will only have had three years under relatively stable management.

Problems with status quo

Although some people expect local politicians to resist an extension of the state takeover, veteran Orleans Parish School Board member Lourdes Moran said that won't necessarily happen. But the continuation of the current apparatus also poses serious problems, she said.

"This shouldn't be seen as a turf battle, " Moran said. "But one of the biggest problems is the school system cannot financially continue to run two parallel systems. The numbers just don't work. The other major issues are that you have to have some policies that are universal, and local people have a place where they feel they get heard."

The School Board runs just four schools and oversees a dozen charters, with the vast majority of schools falling under the Recovery District.

Pastorek has yet to settle on any particular political structure that might replace the elected local board, but he has examined various recommendations. He also raised the possibility that the return of schools could occur one at a time or in phases over several years. The state could, for instance, adopt a strategy of returning only higher-performing performing schools to local control while retaining control over the most troubled campuses.

Another option: The state could relinquish control to a local entity, but with conditions, laid out in a contract that can be revoked, much like an individual school charter.

He cited the poll released Thursday as one indication that the state should be in no hurry to return schools to a local board with a troubled history.

"The poll is an interesting data point as to when and where schools should go and when, " though just one consideration of many, he said. "And it suggests more time should pass before a return to local governance."

Charter support in poll

The poll posed a series of school-related questions, among other social and political concerns, to a sample of 500 likely voters in New Orleans. The respondents showed strong support for the current governance structure. For instance, 74 percent supported independently run charter schools, with just 10 percent opposed. And 62 percent supported converting more traditional schools into charters, even after being told by pollsters that a majority of students attend charters now.

"It would be hard to get better numbers for apple pie and motherhood, " said Leslie Jacobs, a former state school board member who devised the Recovery School District law.

The poll was commissioned by the Council for a Better Louisiana, which has strongly supported the state takeover. In one of the more revealing questions, pollsters asked people to name "things that are better than before Katrina" -- without giving them choices, and before mentioning any of the school reforms. The most popular of 11 answers, at 25 percent, was "schools, education."

Education observers generally acknowledged that many public schools have improved and many parents and other community members are pleased, even excited, about recent changes. Yet the poll should not be interpreted as unquestioning local support for state control, or for the current array of policies and politicians controlling them, some said.

Further, the state needs to address questions about the sustainability of reforms -- which have come with increased financing that will soon erode -- and address the confusion of many parents about school choices.

Not necessarily better

"It's more complicated, " said Aesha Rasheed, who as executive director of the New Orleans Parent Organizing Network deals with parents on a daily basis. "Because people are still struggling to understand charter vs. noncharter, there's a knee-jerk reaction that charters are better. But then parents learn that it really depends on which charter."

And parents still harbor skepticism about the noncharter, centrally managed RSD schools. "For people who see the direct-run schools as 'the state, ' they don't necessarily see the state as doing a good job, " Rasheed said.

She and others hear little nostalgia for the old order, but there's clearly a desire for establishing a central place to seek answers and address problems.

Further, issues of equity for the least able families remains a major issue.

"I think we need to listen not just to those who are able, and can navigate the system in a kind of Darwinian way, but those who are struggling, " Rasheed said. "And those kind of people won't be reflected in a poll."
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