Graduating senior Brandi Sylve, gives one of the keynote speeches at KIPP-NO’s (Knowledge is Power Program) fifth annual Power to Lead Gala. Photo: Patrick Melon

When it comes to breaking up a school district, people go to New Orleans for instruction.

Following Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana took over a large swath of schools in the Crescent City (eventually turning them into charters) based on their school performance while leaving the local school board and its central office intact, albeit with far fewer schools.

The Recovery School District took control of the district’s low-performing schools and created a fractured school system in the process.

Since then, a particular question has been on repeat: Why should New Orleans’ charter schools return to the Orleans Parish School District?

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Test scores are up; so are high school graduation rates. More public school students are getting into college, and in the last few years, school officials are seemingly finding new ways to address old, chronic issues like excessive suspension and expulsion, funding inequity and forsaken special needs services.

And what would schools actually return to? Many of the procedures that created a tiered system in the old Orleans Parish School District are still in place. The Orleans Parish School District was able to get its finances in order. However, selective admissions, antiquated funding formulas for things like special needs services as well as disjointed enrollment practices can potentially reestablish returning schools to the second-class status many held before the storm.

Let’s be clear, improved test scores don’t mean schools are acceptable or that growth is sustainable. Although scores are up, black, low-income students in the Recovery School District are not consistently getting needed resources and quality instruction across all schools.

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And while more students are getting into college, many are not prepared. The graduation rates among Louisiana colleges are still abysmal, and New Orleans students are frequent casualties. Much of the stopping out from college falls upon the postsecondary institutions, but the sending schools also carry a burden. Nevertheless, students’ academic performances are climbing.

So why should New Orleans’ charter schools return to the Orleans Parish School District?

State intervention doesn’t always work. What happens to schools under state authority that don’t cross academic thresholds? Should there be a never-ending takeover for takeover schools? There are inefficiencies that come from intense decentralization. Infamous transportation costs negate some of the savings from having fewer administrators. The effect of taking over districts mainly populated by people of color is a kind of blaming the victim that white districts often don’t tolerate. And like many, I actually want my representation for my taxation.

Again, why should New Orleans’ charter schools return to the Orleans Parish School District?

It’s that very question that keeps New Orleans public schools from progressing. Ultimately, ephemeral and largely ideological responses of yes or no come from the question of should schools return rather than solutions, which can be derived from the question of how should schools return?

The steep climb of academic improvement that started in 2007 has since leveled, but we can’t afford rest in valleys.

“It is known nationally, and I believe we know it locally, that we are on the way to building the highest performing urban school district in the country,” said Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise, executive director of KIPP-New Orleans at their fifth annual Power to Lead gala, adding, “a school district that is unified and locally governed, a school district that sets all students on a path toward excellent college and career options.”

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In February, the KIPP board of directors announced they had “voted unanimously to begin negotiations with the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) to transfer one of its charter schools, KIPP Renaissance High School, to OPSB oversight beginning in the 2016-17 school year.” Within the same month, the New Beginnings Board voted to begin the process of transferring two of its schools. Friends of King Schools handed over Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School last year.

KIPP’s decision to begin negotiations with one of its 10 charter schools recognizes the aforementioned considerations as well as what’s at stake. If New Orleans wants to be the highest performing urban school district in the country it must pursue unification in its deepest sense. There must be a renewed commitment among all schools to raise standards, set even higher expectations, remove inefficiencies and inequalities as well as honor basic democratic functions. How we do this must be done with care and thoughtfulness.

By sticking a toe in the water, KIPP is showing a reasoned but strong commitment to children, their neighborhoods and communities by authentically responding to the how should schools return question. Kudos to Friends of King and New Beginnings for also responding to that critical question of how. KIPP is important because of its size (10 schools) and influence both locally and nationally. If negotiations fail, then KIPP can try again at a later date. If they succeed, then New Orleans has more arrows in its quiver to take aim at becoming the highest performing urban school district.

Regarding a return, I generally agree with Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim in their Center on Reinventing Public Education assessment that “the answer is to apply America’s greatest invention —constitutionally limited government — to public schools.” Bureaucracy helped facilitate the tiered system of the past as well as unnecessary intrusions that prevent school leaders for addressing student achievement.

However, I believe the negotiations between the various schools and the district might prove to be the most authentically democratic action New Orleans has seen in years. Ultimately, putting a school district back together again will be more instructive for the rest of the country than learning how New Orleans broke one up.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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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).