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Californians Should Watch NOLA's Return to Local Board Control

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[Updated to include reference to United Teachers of Los Angeles Charter school report that is being released Tuesday.]

Under legislation passed by the Louisiana legislature, New Orleans schools will revert to local control, ending a decade of state takeover following Hurricane Katrina.  The legislation and its underlying politics provide powerful lessons for those who want to figure out how to govern charter schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere.  The urgency in addressing a workable single governance system is underscored in a report being presented by United Teachers Los Angeles to the Los Angeles Unified School District board showing substantial negative financial impact of charter schools on the district.  

In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has said he will sign the bill that will transfer control of the 48,000-student school district from state control to the Orleans Parish School Board by 2019.  But the law also redefines the concept of local control and explicitly retains autonomous charter status enjoyed by almost all of the schools.

As Douglas Harris wrote in his Education Week blog, the bill repeats and reemphasizes much of existing charter school law saying:

"Unless mutually agreed...the local school board shall not impede the operational autonomy of a charter school under its jurisdiction in the areas of school programming, instruction, curriculum, materials and texts, yearly school calendars and daily schedules, hiring and firing of personnel, employee performance management and evaluation, terms and conditions of employment, teacher or administrator certification, salaries and benefits, retirement, collective bargaining, budgeting, purchasing, procurement, and contracting for services or other than capital repairs and facilities construction."

Board To Approve Charters

Other than hiring a superintendent and some important back office functions, what's left for the school board is the power to authorize and revoke charters.  The school board essentially becomes the holder and manager of the portfolio, the first large scale test of whether a politically elected school board can carry out the task of denying charters to schools that fail to improve and recruit new, high quality operators.  Harris, whose Education Research Alliance will soon be releasing reports on the effects of school closure, thinks that it's unlikely to expect an elected board to buck the pressure to keep existing schools open.  Robin Lake at the Center for Reinventing Public Education voiced similar fears that the parish school board won't close down the lowest-performing schools.  "Protecting existing charter schools is not enough," she writes, "because New Orleans still needs to go through many more cycles of continuous improvement."

The pending Louisiana legislation addresses two of the overhanging issues that any city with a combination of district-run and charter schools will have to address.

Unified Governance

First, it creates unified governance.  As I have written earlier, running two parallel school systems is a bad idea.  Andy Smarick and other charter-friendly writers are increasingly realizing that just adding more charters, or in the case of New Orleans converting nearly the whole city to charters, doesn't create a system.

Second, it restores local democracy.  When the Recovery School District (RSD), using powers given by the state board of education, took over New Orleans' schools after Katrina, it fired the mostly-Black teaching force and created a charter-run operation that many community members found profoundly offensive.

Restores Local Democracy

The RSD was never intended to be permanent, and Louisiana State Superintendent John White, a charter supporter and one of the young idealists attracted to the New Orleans experiment, supported the new law. "The mission was to recover the schools, not to maintain a group of white bureaucrats not from New Orleans," said White in a New York Times article.

Within parts of the Black community, the legislation does not go far enough.  The New Orleans Tribune, called the legislation a Trojan Horse: "It is written to serve the needs and desires of the charter school movement and the predators and profiteers that have unapologetically gained from this experiment."

Sarah Carr's Hope Against Hope captures the conflict between the pro and anti-charter factions as well as the growing pains of the new system.

What Will The Board Do?

The test of the new unified and democratic control is will be whether the interest groups that cluster around the school board—there are elections in the fall—move toward reproducing a traditional school district with operating authority gravitating back toward centralized control or whether autonomous operations can thrive under an elected board.  Harris points out that the right to authorize and revoke charters gives the district board substantial negotiating leverage over charter operators.

Politically, the first question is whether the value of autonomous schools has gained traction and support.  Polls and reports suggest that parents like the new school arrangement, but we don't yet know how that plays out in electoral politics. 

Choice as a Primary Value

School choice as a value will be in play.  New Orleans has virtually eliminated attendance zones, and there is substantial debate about how well choice is working. 

The Cowen Institute reports that since adoption of a common application system, called One App. in 2011 admission has been fairer, and schools have not been able to easily discourage students they didn't want and encourage others.  The vast majority of students chose to stay in the school where they were, and Cowen reports that in 2014-2015 some 75% of students were placed in one of their top three choices.  There is also substantial variety in types of offerings.  A quite different picture emerges from a study undertaken by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, based largely on research done in 2014.  They report that schools are highly stratified by race, class, and educational advantage and that student experiences are likewise stratified.

The newly empowered school board will have to decide how much to emphasize choice as the central mechanism in its school improvement policy and whether to reestablish neighborhood schools as the anchor in the system.

Will the Foundations Stay?

The way choice plays out may well determine the appetite that philanthropists have for continuing to support schools in New Orleans.  Engaged foundations, including the Broad Foundation, which has strongly supported charter growth in Los Angeles, may suffer reform fatigue, particularly if the school board seems dysfunctional.

Finally, one can expect strong efforts to re-unionize the teachers, and unions usually gravitate toward centralization: one district, one contract, one set of work rules.  It will be interesting to see if the charter school teachers opt for a new and different kind of union.  Expect much union electoral activity.

Whether the action of the legislature signals the end of the New Orleans experiment or a potentially exciting next phase depends on how local politics plays out over the next couple years. 

Californians should watch this carefully. 

I've made a standing offer to lead a field trip, let folks judge for themselves, gobble up a few crawfish, and listen to some good jazz.

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