Charter schools and local control in New Orleans

Recent legislative activity in Louisiana has brought attention to school governance questions in New Orleans.  Yet, New Orleans schools are no strangers to attention.  With a public education system consisting almost entirely of charter schools, and with no traditionally functioning district or residence-based school assignment, the city’s schools have been the subject of heavy scrutiny and debate for a decade.  Until now discussion has focused on the merits of a charter-based school system.  However, with legislation set to transfer oversight authority from the state to the local school district, New Orleans looks poised to become the subject of a new round of discussion.  This time the topic will be a district’s ability to manage a portfolio of charter schools.

Louisiana Senate Bill (SB) 432 calls for schools overseen by the state Recovery School District (RSD) to return to local school districts, most notably the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB).  The state created the RSD in 2003 to assume control of low-performing schools and then used the RSD to overhaul New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina.  The change in governing authority from SB 432 is clear and sweeping.  The OPSB will reassume control of schools in New Orleans, though this time primarily in the role of authorizers, by 2018 or 2019.

The change in actual school functioning, at least in the short term, looks modest.  SB 432 preserves charter schools’ prominent role in the New Orleans school landscape.  It demands that local districts “shall not impede the operational autonomy of a charter school under its jurisdiction,” preserving the discretion over curriculum, instruction, and management provided to schools in their charters.  It requires the continued use of centralized enrollment systems, with rules ensuring that seats are available citywide.  In short, the legislation aims to largely preserve the current system but shift oversight and administrative control of that system from the state to the district. 

So if the legislation generally preserves the status quo, albeit with a transfer of decisionmaking authority, why are New Orleans residents and the education policy community monitoring it so closely?  Because the transfer touches a variety of important, sensitive subjects.

First, there are raw emotions in New Orleans attached to Katrina and the education reforms that followed.  Issues of race, fairness, and power play a central role.  At a 2015 conference about the New Orleans school reforms, Howard Fuller described a sense among many African-Americans that the reforms happened “to us and not with us” and reflect a broader disrespect for African-American institutions and capacity for self-governance.  These concerns extend beyond the RSD’s continued presence in New Orleans—from the mass firing of teachers after Katrina to the disproportionate share of white education reformers—but few issues are as fundamental as local control.  An April 2016 report by the Cowen Institute affirmed this sentiment, showing particularly strong support among black voters to return control of New Orleans schools to the locally elected OPSB (even as most say charters have improved public education).  Many New Orleanians believe that if other cities have the ability to govern their own schools via elected school boards, so, too, should New Orleans.

Second, education policy researchers and reformers debate the consequences of holding charter schools accountable to publicly elected local school boards, with no clear resolution.  Some argue that local control provides more direct accountability to the public, forcing schools to serve democratic and social purposes in addition to their own students’ needs.  District offices also may be better equipped than states to provide support services and respond to parents’ concerns.  Others contend that local school board members’ incentives are poorly aligned with the needs of a thriving charter school sector.  Closing low-performing schools can be difficult for local officials confronted with disapproving constituents, and districts’ inclinations toward increasing their control and funding can be at odds with charter leaders’ desires for autonomy.  While the legislation being debated in Baton Rouge attends to many of these concerns in the short run, the long run is less clear.

Third, wherever there is debate about New Orleans schools, debate about charter schools is not far behind.  The share of public school students enrolled in charter schools is climbing in many urban areas, and lessons learned in New Orleans could have far-reaching implications elsewhere.  It was not a foregone conclusion that reunification legislation in Louisiana would preserve a prominent role for charters.  In fact, the possibility that legislators would support an alternate bill that returned control to the OPSB without protecting schools’ charter status likely helped to attract broad support for SB 432.  While the coming transition in New Orleans will provide fodder for discussion about state takeovers and local control, it will also reinvigorate debates about the broader potential and performance of charter schools.

The shift of oversight authority from the RSD to the OPSB will draw even more attention to public education in New Orleans.  The RSD was not created to be a permanent fixture in New Orleans, and its transfer of authority to the OPSB promises lessons about portfolio management.  However, some of those lessons may require patience.  This legislation, and the politics that accompany it, point to modest changes in the functioning of New Orleans schools in the short run.  What will happen in the long run as the OPSB settles in is much less certain.