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Governor to return schools to New Orleans since Katrina

By Kate Zernike,

Nothing has defined and even driven the fractious national debate over education quite like this city and the transformation of its school system in the decade since Hurricane Katrina.

Reformers say its successes as an almost all-charter, state-controlled district make it a model for other failing urban school systems. Charter school opponents and unions point to what has happened here as proof that the reformers’ goal is just to privatize education and strip families of their voice in local schools across the country.

Now comes another big moment in the New Orleans story: The governor is expected soon to sign legislation returning the city’s schools to the locally elected school board for the first time since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Strikingly, that return is being driven by someone squarely in the pro-charter camp, the state superintendent, John White. He is a veteran of touchstone organizations behind the efforts to remake public schools — Teach for America and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and its superintendent training program — as well as the hard-charging charter school efforts in New York City. He represents the wave of largely white, young idealists who rushed to this city post-Katrina to be part of the Big Thing in education.

To Mr. White, the move to local control is not the retreat it may seem. He argues that it will make New Orleans a new model, radically redefining the role of central school boards just as many urban school districts are shifting increasingly large portions of their students to independently run but publicly funded charter schools.

“The mission was to recover the schools, not to maintain a group of white bureaucrats not from New Orleans,” said Mr. White, 41, an alumnus of the elite St. Albans School in Washington and the University of Virginia. “The mission has to be completed, and you can’t call it completed when the central offices aren’t serving all the schools.”

“At some point, you’re going to need to rely on the will of the people locally,” he added.

This new model essentially splits the difference: The schools will keep the flexibility and autonomy, particularly over hiring and teaching, that have made charters most unlike traditional public schools. But the board becomes manager and regulator, making sure schools abide by policies meant to ensure equity and provide broad services, like managing the cost of particularly expensive special education students, that individual schools might not have the capacity or desire to do.

Cities from Boston to Los Angeles are locked in fierce fights over charter schools, which critics say siphon off money and the most engaged families from local districts, while skimming the best students and steering away the most challenging — not always with better results. Families in districts with majorities of poor black and Latino children are increasingly pushing back against educator recruitment groups like Teach for America, scorning their efforts as education tourism for privileged Ivy Leaguers.

People here say the national debate does not fit some of the nuances of the divide in New Orleans. For one thing, the local board itself runs its own share of charter schools. But what has resonated broadly here is the sense that changes to the schools were done to the city’s residents, not with them.

This is a place where “Where did you go to school?” refers to high school, so the move to erase neighborhood schools and replace them with charters after Katrina angered powerful alumni groups. About 7,500 teachers were fired — most of them black — damaging the city’s black middle class, economically and politically.

“This wasn’t just a loss of control over education, this was loss on a massive scale,” said Erika McConduit-Diggs, the president of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans. “This very much feels like ‘finally.’ It will take things like this to heal those wounds.”

But the healing is far from complete.

Nearly every school building in New Orleans has been rebuilt or refurbished, and students have made impressive academic gains. Yet they were starting from the bottom; New Orleans was the second-worst school district in the nation’s second-lowest-ranked state. The schools have a long way to go before anyone considers them good, or even good enough.

Some worry that with a return to local control, and without the state’s prodding, the schools will lose momentum and urgency. They hear “return” and recall a school board that was notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional before the storm; its televised meetings were bring-your-popcorn events. “Like watching Jerry Springer,” said Joey LaRoche, the principal of the KIPP charter high school here, who graduated from the city’s schools before Katrina.

“If this is not done well, we will go backwards as a city,” said Leslie Jacobs, a local insurance executive and philanthropist who as a member of the state board of education led the creation of the state district that took over the schools. “We cannot go backwards.”

On the other side, the legislation has done nothing to placate those who associate state control with charter schools — and want the charters gone as well.

“Don’t Be Fooled by a Trojan Horse,” The New Orleans Tribune, a black newsmagazine, editorialized, calling the legislation passed by the Louisiana House on Thursday “just a ploy to maintain the status quo.”

“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,” The Tribune said, “not the people, parents, students, voters and taxpayers of school systems that have been decimated by a so-called reform movement that has done far more harm than good.”

Mr. White acknowledges that the bill will largely preserve the status quo.

In detailed language, it forbids the local board to interfere with charter schools’ autonomy on decisions like whom to hire, what to teach, how to spend their money and how long to make the school day. Pre-Katrina, those decisions rested, as they do in most school districts, with the elected board, which hires the superintendents who hire the principals.

But the bill also gives the school board far more powers over the charter schools than boards in other cities have. The board will be the regulator requiring that all schools participate in universal systems for enrolling and expelling students. It will decide where new schools get to open or expand, and have the power to shut down failing or undersubscribed schools.

Louisiana created the state-run Recovery School District to take over failing schools shortly before Katrina. But only after the catastrophic levee breaches — which made schools unusable even if most students had not fled the city — did it move to take over most of the schools.


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