State superintendent charts course for New Orleans schools to return to local control

State superintendent charts course for New Orleans schools to return to local control
September 12, 2010
Cindy Chang

tate Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek stands by his earlier statements that he will maintain the status quo and keep most New Orleans public schools under state control for now.
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But he is adding a new twist. His long-anticipated recommendation, to be released Tuesday, will set the stage for some schools to be governed by a local board in the near future, rather than spending another five years in the Recovery School District.

Pastorek's proposal is not the final word. It needs the approval of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Dec. 9, with at least one public hearing to be held in New Orleans before the BESE decision. Still, it will be the first concrete step toward returning to local control schools that were deemed "failing" and seized by the state.

In an interview last week, Pastorek said he will lay out a process for each of the 68 Recovery District schools in New Orleans to determine its own destiny. Only schools that show consistent academic improvement will be eligible to leave the Recovery District. Then, each school would decide on its own, with community input, whether to remain under state control or sign on with a local governing body. The local entity -- most likely the historically troubled Orleans Parish School Board -- must also demonstrate that it is ready to receive the schools.

The 2005 state takeover was just the first step in a massive post-storm overhaul of the New Orleans public schools. Nearly three-quarters of schools in the city are now charters, independently run but evaluated regularly by its governing district, which has the power to close low-performing schools. According to Pastorek's plan, transfers would only take place when the local entity can govern in "a 21st century manner" that preserves the cornerstones of post-Katrina education reform -- granting schools the autonomy to make most of their own decisions while still holding them to high standards.

"What I do not anticipate is that the schools will be required to stay in the RSD for five more years," Pastorek said. "The schools may end up doing that, but it will not be required. I'm going to describe a path forward and requirements that need to be met. If the requirements are met, then there will be a very specific path forward."

Nearly everyone involved in the debate agrees that the schools should eventually return to local control. But because there is little consensus on when and how that should happen, Pastorek's recommendation is expected to spark hours of heated dialogue at Tuesday's BESE meeting in Baton Rouge and the public hearing to be held in New Orleans in the coming weeks.

While overall academic performance in the Recovery District has improved rapidly, some schools have lagged, particularly those directly run by the district. With most BESE meetings in Baton Rouge and only one board member having a New Orleans address, there are almost no elected officials for citizens to hold accountable. The appointed boards that govern charter schools are often opaque, with parents unaware of who sits on them or when their meetings take place.

"What frustrates folks about the current governance is the gaps in the pipeline and how kids get lost in the system, the lack of transparency, the lack of meaningful direct ways for the community's voice to be heard," said Deirdre Johnson Burel, executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network, which sponsored a series of talks on the governance issue.

School Board's role

The pre-Katrina School Board was known as a nest of dysfunction, warring internally and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. A former board president was convicted in 2007 of taking $140,000 in bribes before the storm.

The Recovery School District was created before Katrina to turn around low-performing schools, but its scope was dramatically expanded in the frantic months after the storm, when schools were racing to fix their facilities and reopen. State officials took the opportunity to wrest the vast majority of schools from the School Board by broadening the definition of a failing school in Orleans Parish to include all those performing below the state average.

Five years after Katrina, 42 percent of New Orleans public schools are rated "academically unacceptable" by the state -- still a high number, but a significant improvement from 64 percent before the storm. By law, Pastorek must make a recommendation this month on whether the schools should stay in the Recovery School District.

Left with 16 of the highest-performing schools, the School Board has a new slate of board members and has cleaned up its financial act. A majority of its schools are charters, so it has evolved into a nontraditional district that mostly oversees independently managed schools. But many educators are skeptical about whether it is equipped to take on more than a handful of lower-performing Recovery District schools.

Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, approves of Pastorek's plan to set criteria that local districts must meet before any schools are returned. The association counts most RSD charter schools as members.

"As an association, we don't believe the Orleans Parish School Board has fully proven themselves," Shirley said. "We don't believe the trigger for return should be how a school is performing. It needs to be that the school district we took it from is doing something differently."

Andre Perry, associate dean of UNO's education school and CEO of four charters run by the university, said he believes the School Board is not yet ready to take on a large number of academically struggling schools, because it has only managed relatively high-performing schools since Katrina.

Perry said he would like to keep the Capital One-UNO charters in the Recovery District until the School Board proves itself.

"I would stay put until NOPS (the New Orleans public School Board) shows that they can turn around failing schools," Perry said. "I know in the current framework we're improving, so why would I risk that?"

School Board President Woody Koppel highlighted the strides the district has made since Katrina and said he supports Pastorek's idea of self-determination for eligible schools.

"I want them to make the choice because they believe it's the best thing for their children," Koppel said. "I want them to choose OPSB because that's the best option, not because it's something forced."

For others, the solution is to start from scratch. Former School Board member Torin Sanders has attracted some support for his proposal to create a single governing body called the New Orleans Unified School District, comprised of nine elected board members. The new district would employ a CEO rather than a superintendent and act primarily as a charter school authorizer.

Wide range of voices

For a vocal group of New Orleanians, a return to local control could not come soon enough. At public meetings, some have spoken of a racist conspiracy in referring to the state takeover and an influx of mostly white educators from out of town.

Parent advocate Karran Harper Royal is organizing a busload of locals who plan to speak at Tuesday's BESE meeting, when Pastorek will unveil his full recommendations. The state should give back the schools because it has done a poor job of running them, Royal said, pointing to some Recovery School District schools where as few as 20 percent of students pass standardized tests in English and math.

"It's time for this experimentation to stop. Let's let New Orleans be like any other tax-paying municipality and elect its own school board," said Royal, who supports a modified version of Sanders' plan.

Tulane University's Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives is taking the opposite stand, arguing that all the schools should remain in the Recovery School District for another five years. While local control is the ultimate goal, the RSD needs more time to turn around the poorest-performing schools, said Nash Molpus, Cowen's associate director.

"We do think that all of the schools should stay in the RSD, even those that are doing well. Changing governance mid-stream could be detrimental," Molpus said. "I'm not sure right now is the time to turn all of the schools, or even the best-performing schools, back to the OPSB."

Regardless of who governs the schools, most are likely to remain charters. And charter leaders tend to prize a district office that will stay out of their hair and let them make their own decisions.

Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise, executive director of KIPP New Orleans, which runs six charters, likes Pastorek's proposal to have each school decide its own fate, a self-determination that she said makes sense in the nation's first majority-charter city.

"For the most part, we have been able to govern ourselves. We've been able to do what's best for kids at each of our schools," Kalifey-Aluise said. "That freedom, that autonomy is what attracts amazing teachers and principals and enables them to innovate in a way that magical things happen in classroom, which is at the end of the day what we're all about."
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