Paul Vallas’ Legacy

After Paul Vallas’ annoucement last week that he will be returning to Chicago in 2010, a number of Educate Now!’s members asked me for my perspective on this coming transition.  This Notebook is also the subject of a guest column in today’s Times Picayune.
So, what will Paull Vallas’ depature in 2010 mean for the school reform effort? 
After he leaves, student achievement in New Orleans will continue to improve.

How can I proclaim this with such confidence?

Because we now have a new model of public education reform that is no longer dependent upon Paul Vallas or any other single person for its success.

The New Landscape: A Decentralized System of Schools

New Orleans now operates under a unique “system of schools,” in which no superintendent or board can make decisions affecting all or even most students.

This decentralization represents a powerful paradigm shift – and an important legacy for Vallas, who championed creation of public charter schools, even as most superintendents nationally called them a threat to traditional public education.

Fifty-eight percent of public school students in New Orleans attend charter schools – more than any district nationally. And, this percentage will continue to increase as the current charters add additional grades and newly approved charters open.

Charters schools are public schools that operate independently. Charter principals and board members make their own decisions on hiring, spending, curriculum – just about everything. While the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education or the Orleans Parish School Board grant charters and monitor school performance, neither they nor their superintendents are involved in the schools’ daily operations.

This new system of schools is working. Schools and students are performing better; parents have more choices; civic, business and community leaders are joining charter boards and re-engaging in public education.

A Decentralized System of Schools:  A More Stable Model

As the charter movement has grown, many people have questioned its sustainability.  How could a system of public charter schools be stable long term?  The question implies that the old system provided stability.  It did not.

Over the past 20 years, New Orleans, like most urban districts, has seen a revolving door of superintendents. We counted on the “hero” model: Find a savior to fix problems that had mounted for decades. Understandably, no single leader could tackle the task.

Each new leader was heralded, only to be quickly ousted amid public cynicism and political turmoil. Successive changes bred increasing instability, as each new superintendent sought to make a mark with new programs, curriculum and staff – all to be tossed again in the next upheaval.

With decentralization, today’s heroes include the scores of principals, teachers, operators, charter board members and non-profit organizations that have sprouted to support them.

They’re eating the elephant one bite at a time.

Additionally, charter schools have proven they don’t need a superintendent or a central office to recruit great staffs and handle transitions. Since schools reopened in 2006, many charters have changed leadership. Some conducted local or national searches; others promoted from within. All found the leaders they needed.

When the school year 2010-2011 begins without Paul Vallas, only the students who attend traditional schools run by the RSD will be directly impacted by his departure- about 10,000 of the projected 40,000 public school students.  Independently run charter schools will dominate the landscape.

Thank You, Paul Vallas

In 2007, New Orleans needed Paul Vallas. His prestige brought instant credibility and resources to the recovery and reform efforts. He leveraged his experience from Chicago and Philadelphia to quickly attract top talent, stabilize schools and institute reforms.

These efforts have shown results:  the RSD schools are now well staffed; there is a clear educational game plan; the K-8 schools showed strong growth in student achievement last year and the RSD is implementing much needed high school redesign.

But perhaps Vallas’ greatest contribution is that he embraced and supported a decentralized system of schools that no longer makes us so dependent on any one person.

And when the dust settles, this will be his legacy to New Orleans.