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Another First in New Orleans? Redefining Local Control of Schools

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New Orleans was the first city in the country to move to an almost-all-charter school system, but that system has been governed mostly by the state. Now, the city seems poised for another first: to become the first almost-all-charter district governed by a traditional, locally elected school board.

Several bills have now been introduced in the Louisiana state legislature to "return" the schools to the control of the local Orleans Parish School Board. While that's happened before, this time is different because one of the bills (SB432) was developed in partnership with, and endorsement from, a large number of the city's charter leaders.

To be clear, many, if not most, local charter leaders are not exactly eager to move to local district governance. A large number of charter schools could have moved back to the local district and chose not to. But with a newly elected Democratic governor with a history of criticizing charter schools, statewide concern about the broadening hand of state government, and longstanding local pressure to return the schools to district control, the change has taken on an air of inevitability. Charter leaders are trying to get in front of it by supporting a bill they can live with.

As unprecedented as the New Orleans reforms have been--the reliance on charters and alternatively prepared teachers and near-elimination of attendance zones and union contracts--the return to local control may be the most important New Orleans "first" to date. Why? First, in New Orleans, there has been concern that the creation of this new system was done with too little local and community input, that it was undemocratic and done to the community instead of with the community.

The role of race is also important here. Black citizens fought for decades to gain access to public school resources in the era of desegregation and even longer to gain a voice in them. With that control taken away, it's not hard to see why there is much stronger support for returning the schools to local control among the city's black population. Race matters in discussions of local versus state control, especially when "local" equates to an almost-all-black student population and "state" refers to a population that is 63% white, and especially after all the city's teachers (75% black) had been fired and replaced by a teacher workforce that is 49% black and mostly from out of state. Howard Fuller and Andre Perry have commented thoughtfully on this.

The bill also has significant national implications. Other cities have large charter market shares and some role for locally elected school boards, but the roles of local school boards over charters has been limited in those cases. For example, in Washington, DC, charter schools are governed by a separate charter board.

This is a big difference. There is not much question that a large charter sector can be created and maintained when a state agency comes in to take over. But the concerns about the state-driven approach also make this unpalatable. The big question is, can new charter-based reforms be rooted within the old structure of locally elected boards and districts? To be clear, pushing existing charter schools into a local district is quite different from having a local district create a charter-based system from scratch but it is a step in that direction.

This bill also has a much larger implication: it will completely redefine the meaning of "local control." To see this most clearly, I can simply quote the core of the bill that seems likely to become law:

"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 other than capital repairs and facilities construction."

Much of that wording is already built into the existing charter law; the bill mostly just reinforces that existing language. But, after reading this, you have to ask, what's left for the local board to do? Hiring the superintendent is important and the bill also provides district-level control over centralized enrollment, some elements of finance, and a limited number of other activities.

Most importantly, the bill gives the district (including the OPSB superintendent and board) the power to authorize and revoke charters. This means the district would have the power to hire and fire school operators, and perhaps turn some of them back into traditional public schools. This is an extremely powerful role because it gives the district leverage in negotiating over all the other things it would be explicitly precluded from "impeding." While the district is not supposed to influence "school programming, instruction, and curriculum" for example, the district could use the power to close schools to force school leaders to the negotiating table and make deals that are "mutually agreed" and therefore within the scope of the bill. If the district did turn down a charter, the charter board could appeal to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), but there won't be much appetite for the state to take back over a large number of schools they just returned. This gives the district more power than it seems.

Others have expressed the opposite concern--that district might be less aggressive than the state has been in trying to improve schools. Robin Lake of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) writes that shifting schools back to the district will halt progress. Certainly, the existing state-driven RSD has generated large achievement gains and Lake seems to see school closure as a key to continued improvement. She asks, "Will the [local] OPSB be willing to take political heat for continually closing down the lowest-performing schools and replacing them with better ones?"

As I pointed out at a Brookings event earlier this week, the answer is surely, "no." Local agencies (even with mayoral takeovers) rarely close schools based on performance. The pressure on local board members to keep schools open is enormous, especially compared with the state board of education whose members are responsible for either the entire state or an electoral district so vast that the closure of an individual school does not lead to much pressure. As a result, local boards only close schools when they absolutely have to (especially when they run out of money) and, even then, not based on school performance. There is debate about whether closing low-performing schools and turning them over to other operators is a good thing and we will be releasing multiple reports on the effects of school closure soon to inform that conversation. The point here is that the shift to local control will change some of the most important decisions that any board can make in a charter-based system--the decisions about who gets to run the schools.

One thing that is certain, this bill is neither a return to the past, nor a complete return of control to the local district.  For New Orleans, it enshrines the existing authority and autonomy of individual schools and charter management organizations. For the rest of the country it redefines local control and local democracy to mean something quite new. For that reason, if it passes into law, it will be another New Orleans first and another reason for the rest of the country to pay close attention to what's happening here.


Douglas N. Harris is Professor of Economics, the Schleider Foundation Chair in Public Education, and the Founder and Director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University (www.educationresearchalliancenola.com).

You can follow him on Twitter @douglasnharris


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