NEW ORLEANS >> 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: In the next few weeks, the governor is expected 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. 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, White 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 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 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, creaming 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, 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 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, 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 led the creation of the state district that took over the schools as a member of the state board of education. “We cannot go backwards,” she said.
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.”
White himself acknowledges that the bill will largely preserve the status quo.
In detailed language, it forbids the local board from interfering 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.
By the time White arrived in 2011, half the city’s public school students were in charter schools. It was a system, as he describes it now, of “autonomy, choice and chaos.”
Schools had different enrollment procedures and policies on expulsion. The parish school board itself was running about a dozen charter schools, along with a half dozen traditional schools, mostly the schools that had been higher performing before the storm. Those schools served lower rates of poor and special education students, leading to complaints from state-run schools that the parish schools were pushing out students who were harder to educate.
White turned more schools over to charter school operators. And now 93 percent of the city’s 48,000 public school students are in charter schools, the highest percentage in the country.
But he also moved to establish the unified enrollment system across all schools, local or state run, and a central expulsion procedure, so that schools would have to follow the same rules on the students they took and those they let go.
Another new policy required all schools to provide transportation, so that they could not weed out poorer students by making it impossible for those without cars to attend. The city’s charter school boards mobilized politically to force the parish school board to agree to a citywide system of funding so that all schools receive and spend the same amount of money for different categories of students, like English learners and special education students.
With these changes, a return to local control seemed possible. “We’re talking to each other, which we didn’t do before,” said Alexina Medley, principal at Warren Easton, an Orleans Parish charter high school. “We’re one city, we should be one school system.”
With the 10th anniversary of the hurricane last fall, the missionary zeal of young reformers coming to the city has waned, and philanthropies have some “reform fatigue,” said Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise, a New Orleans native who is executive director of the KIPP New Orleans Schools, one of the biggest charter school operators in the city.
“The decade mark was crystallizing,” Kalifey-Aluise said. “It was like, ‘Yikes, this wave is coming to an end.’” The election of a Democratic governor with strong teachers’ union support last year raised the pressure for return. “We thought, let’s get on top of this and make it work the way we want,” she said.
It is hard to understate the presence of the state in the city’s schools. As White scooted out of his state-owned Prius to return a football that had been tossed from a schoolyard last week, an elementary school student recognized him, seizing the chance to suggest that dictionaries be allowed during state tests. (“I think I did OK,” the student said.)
Doubters worry that the timeline is too fast to create the same kind of robust power in the central office, where staff has been depleted since Katrina. School board elections are this fall, and the legislation calls for schools to be returned within two years.
An even bigger question is whether the elected board will have the nerve to close failing schools and resist the city’s tradition of crony politics and malfeasance.
Even those who have in the past resisted a return to local control say they now believe the changes here cannot be sustained without greater involvement from people who actually live here.
“It would be a shame,” said Ben Kleban, founder of New Orleans College Prep, a charter network, “if our message to the rest of the country was that the only way to reform a school system is to seize control from local people.”