New Orleans Needs to Run Its Own Schools

But what will it take to keep improving education?

It’s time to change the image of education reform as a mere takeover and start bringing NOLA schools back under elected, local control.

Last week, a Louisiana bill that could help enact this change came one step closer to fruition. If made into law, the bill would return schools that were placed in the Recovery School District after Hurricane Katrina to the New Orleans Parish School Board, provided the schools are no longer failing.

The potential return of schools in New Orleans offers other U.S. takeover districts – like Detroit’s Education Achievement Authority and the Achievement School District in Memphis – a blueprint for return. Return is ostensibly something states don’t think through very well. Supporters of state takeover districts nationwide consistently make the mistake of seizing low-performing schools without having a clear end game or exit strategy for schools that recover or fail under state stewardship

Related: The lost children of Katrina

Opponents of the Louisiana measure say the board isn’t ready for the transfer of non-failing schools. But if truly recovered, Louisiana charters that would return under the legislation should feel safe going into a system that allows schools to run themselves.

We shouldn’t worry about the board’s ability to “monitor” autonomous schools.

New Orleans Parish School Board has an impressive pre- and post-storm history of letting autonomous schools draft their own attendance zones and set their own academic criteria for entry. (Nine eligible schools choose not to participate in OneApp, the centralized enrollment system.)

I managed four charter schools in the Recovery School District, and I know my counterparts in the Orleans Parish School Board enjoyed freedoms that I simply couldn’t. Different rules between schools create confusion for families and inequities between professionals.

It’s time for a return, but if we want an equitable, transparent and consistent system with real rules then the superintendent and board members need to install them.

First things first: New Orleans schools can and should have greater autonomy, but the board should vigorously set the limits in which those freedoms can exist. In doing so, the board should understand they are a policy driven body, not one that operates schools. What that means in the policy world is that the board must shift much of its attention to becoming a quality authorizer – “the organizations designated to approve, monitor, renew, and, if necessary, close charter schools.”

In addition, the Orleans Parish School Board has the opportunity to create a platform for parents and students across the landscape of self-directed schools to air their concerns with the system(s). Finally, the board can maximize dollars for the classroom by encouraging more schools to share services like transportation.

Related: How will charter schools differ from traditional public schools in Mississippi

Improvement should be embedded in the return process. But school leaders shouldn’t be afraid of the board.

Claims that the Orleans Parish School board isn’t ready to take on stable schools fall flat. Give them credit; the board manages successful charter schools and its finances well, and the district is second highest performing in the state.

Pointing to political rumbling and corruption as reasons not to return are also feeble. As a former charter leader and board member, I can tell you that political shenanigans and fiscal mismanagement happen. (Remember the $660,000 stolen by a charter school administrator?)

There are real doubts and questions regarding a return to elected, local control, and they have remained since before the great breaches in the levees: how can a traditional district turn around failing schools and what are the limits of state intervention?

Right now, Republican hypocrisy is becoming a glaring limitation as a Republican dominated House is forced to square its votes against conservative drives of wanting less bureaucracy and more local control.

Related: Parents in poor communities do care about their children’s schooling. Here’s how to get them involved.

Individual members of the GOP have to feel the hypocrisy of supporting state takeover in education while running on platforms against government encroachment in health care and taxes. Then again, many Republicans have found it easy to vote against their principles when it comes to a majority black, Democratic New Orleans.

It would have been nice if newly installed Supt. Henderson Lewis worked with the New Orleans delegation to propose the return legislation. Being backed into such a major restructuring isn’t the most strategic way to garner public support for the return. However, based on how the schools were taken from the district after Katrina, forcing a return from the state may be a case of the chickens coming home to roost.

There is a subtle cowardice and clear disingenuousness in saying ‘we’re not ready.’ New Orleans wasn’t ready for the system we have now – we made ourselves so. Saying we’re not ready is really belief in status quo. New Orleans shouldn’t consider bringing schools back to a district as a return to the past. We should boldly make ourselves better for the future.

[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).