Bold Gamble Transforming Schools

After Hurricane Katrina, state officials faced a choice: Take control of the schools in New Orleans or leave them in the care of the city’s notoriously troubled School Board.  A takeover was risky.  New Orleans Public Schools were among the worst in the nation. Most New Orleans legislators opposed state action. More daunting, any reasonable analysis would have put the state’s chance of success extremely low and of political embarrassment correspondingly high.  Nowhere else in the nation had a state department of education ever assumed direct responsibility for operating local schools.

Yet state leaders, led by Gov. Kathleen Blanco and then-Superintendent Cecil Picard, had the courage to take the gamble. With legislative blessing, they moved decisively to expand the state-run Recovery School District – initially created to handle just a handful of failing schools – to include all but 16 schools in the city.

Five years later, it’s clear that gamble has paid off in ways unimaginable even to the most ardent supporters of the takeover. Indeed, when voters were asked the open-ended question, “What about New Orleans has gotten better since the hurricane?”,  the number one answer was “education,” volunteered (without prompting) by one in four voters.  And with good reason.

The city’s schools have been transformed both in their structure and their performance. New Orleans is now the only city in America where a majority of students attend charter schools – nonprofit public schools that control their own budgets, hiring and academic affairs. Further, all students, in both charter and traditional schools, enjoy school choice. No student is assigned by neighborhood boundary, and any parent unhappy with his or her child’s school can choose another one.

The results are stunning. Before the state action, two-thirds of the city’s public school students attended failing schools; today, that percentage is less than a third. Since the takeover, the percentage of students passing the LEAP tests has jumped from 49 to 65% in fourth grade, and from 44 to 58% in eighth grade. In high school, the percentage of students performing on grade level has leapt from 36 to 52% in English and 42 to 60 % in math. And, a higher proportion of students are graduating.

Such transformative gains have come even as schools served a more challenged population, with many students returning home traumatized, some having missed months of school. Today’s schools serve a higher percentage of low-income students (82%) and a comparable minority population (92%) as they did before.

So, what’s next?

This fall, State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, along with the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, must decide whether to continue the current arrangement or return schools to the Orleans Parish School Board. Despite the rapid improvements, much work remains to ensure all students have the educational opportunity they deserve. The reforms are fragile, and now is not the time to return schools to the local board. Here again, voters agree. When asked whether the state should return schools to the Orleans Parish School Board or continue to operate them within the Recovery School District in New Orleans, only 21% wanted schools returned. 62% of voters did not want the schools returned anytime soon (or ever), and 18% were undecided.

Still, the current arrangement shouldn’t last forever. In 2005, the state took over the vast majority of schools but left the Orleans Parish School Board in control of some schools. That strategy has worked tremendously so far, but in the long-term, having two parallel governing bodies, one in Baton Rouge and one in New Orleans, isn’t ideal. So, the city faces a vital debate over crafting a new and permanent system of local governance – one that both preserves the gains and focuses on addressing remaining weaknesses. As that debate begins in earnest, we should borrow an admonition from the medical profession to “first, do no harm.”

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