Why a Vote for State Supervision Offers Little Insight into NOLA School Success

NEW ORLEANS – Having charter schools vote as to whether or not they should return to the Orleans Parish School District confuses an already complicated educational landscape.

After five years of academic and operational success, charter leaders can look for a bargain in leadership – meaning charter-governing boards can decide which authorizer (New Orleans School Board or the state) can supervise them.

Shouldn’t we all shop for our own boss?

Shopping is exactly what’s possible in highly decentralized education environment of New Orleans, home to the majority of underperforming schools taken over by the Recovery School District after Hurricane Katrina.

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Only one of an eligible 36 RSD charter schools has decided to return to the welcoming arms of the Orleans Parish School Board. This decision comes as the annual voting period for schools’ respective management boards ended Dec. 20. Schools have until Jan. 5 to notify the state of their decision.

Sixth grade students Miracle Roberson, left, Darion James, and Brianetay Martin, right, read during literature intervention class at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Sixth grade students Miracle Roberson, left, Darion James, and Brianetay Martin, right, read during literature intervention class at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Friends of King voted unanimously for their Martin Luther King Jr. charter, one of two schools it operates, to return. However, the others’ decision to remain in the RSD does not represent a referendum on the Orleans Parish District, and the lingering question of “will charters return?” is off the mark. Technically, boards can vote annually on whether or not to transfer high performing schools to the auspices of the Orleans Parish Board. This technicality is especially obvious given that most charter providers assumed their schools in a post Katrina context.

With the exception of a few charter providers that existed before the storm (including the one that decided to transfer), who really can make an informed comparison? Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. This is exactly why a vote to stay in the RSD provides little insight into the effectiveness of the Orleans Parish or Recovery districts.

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In addition, those who accepted a messianic call to save New Orleans schools from the burning hell of bureaucracy, corruption and underperformance can’t be expected to vote for a return. The RSD – along with its partners like New Schools for New Orleans – recruited operators, teachers and leaders to the city to erect schools and teach in the vision to take over failing schools from New Orleans Public Schools. A grand return wasn’t part of the deal. These conscripted soldiers are simply unlikely to break rank.

“While I generally believe governance is a lesser concern on the priority list for New Orleans schools, the two district/authorizer “structure” is becoming a two-headed monster.”

The system is full of folks who were trained to work in decentralized urban districts. We know that KIPP and Teach for America, the largest charter manager and importer of new teachers respectively, owe their growth to the RSD. State Superintendent John White and RSD Chief Patrick Dobard are Broad Fellows (The Broad Foundation also provided important seed funding to expand the RSD. The Broad Foundation is also a funder of The Hechinger Report). As an aside, one could argue a clamoring of schools to leave would be more telling than a vote to enter. Nevertheless, why would many charter providers leap into the arms of a NOPS board that has been painted as too political to get anything done?

Even though board members’ politics are as nasty as they’ve been in the past (two years to hire a superintendent), at least their politics are transparent. If the Common Core fight between the Gov. Bobby Jindal and his own Supt. John White is an indication, we can safely say that the state run RSD only shields its politics. Besides, NOPS is a different entity. The majority of their schools are charters. And if leaders in both districts are honest, they’ll tell you that the RSD and NOPS are more nuisances than true impediments. Reformers inflate the risks of joining the New Orleans School Board as anti-reformers minimize the benefits of decentralization. Decentralization and increased autonomy will and should be embraced. And it’s helping schools improve.

But no, most leaders in either camp won’t elect to transfer on their own. Still, there should be a unified district. But we need leadership to get there.

While I generally believe governance is a lesser concern on the priority list for New Orleans schools, the two district/authorizer “structure” is becoming a two-headed monster. See the costly debate around school facility protection funding. Schools apparently will be able to settle disputes by changing authorizers. Enrollment management is woefully incomplete without system wide buy-in, and the school enrollment process is still too confusing for parents. The increased costs of a decentralized, dual system on essential services like transportation and food services compromise everyone’s ability to maximize dollars in the classroom.

It’s time to abandon the thinking that we can’t have what other districts have in an elected board and have autonomous schools. Two boards/authorizers is a lack of leadership. We also can’t allow another disaster to dictate which direction the system should go. Leadership can no longer be discounted.

If the goal is to create a unified district of charters, then we shouldn’t ask providers that are essentially born out of the RSD womb to make the call on whether they should stay.

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If the RSD is a permanent fixture, then make it so. However, be consistent and equitable. I’m not offended by a different governance arrangement for districts, but all New Orleanians (especially the 59.1 percent who are black) should be offended if we’re not afforded the same political luxuries as other districts. If what New Orleans is doing is best practice, then it should be equally good for high-income districts. If a citizen in another parish can graduate and have an electable chance to represent the schools in a district, so should my child.

An aside – let’s see if leaders in wealthy districts elect to have the state supervise their schools.

Without an end game in sight, the state through the RSD is recreating political inequities that no other community would tolerate. Cited academic gains can’t be an excuse not to aim for what other districts have – municipal, local leadership. It’s time for the state to have a real exit strategy. Having biased leaders vote isn’t democratic at all.

New Orleans’s educational lesson teaches that it’s so much easier to deconstruct a system than to build an equitable one. Unfortunately we’ve discounted leadership, rendering it meaningless. This coming year, we should see a timetable for a real return.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).