The news this week about the closing of traditional public schools in the Recovery School District in New Orleans raises questions about whether African American students are getting an equal opportunity to attend the best public schools in the city.
Issues of access and equity are complicated by the public school situation in New Orleans, where there are two distinct systems. The Recovery School District, the larger of the two, was created when the state seized control of most public schools in the turmoil that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After this week, when the Recovery district closes the last neighborhood schools, that system will consist of public charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but privately run.
The second system, the Orleans Parish School District, consists of 14 charter schools and six traditional neighborhood schools. Four of the 14 charter schools have selective admission, which means that students are accepted on the basis of certain criteria, which can include test scores and interviews. These schools are among the city’s highest -achieving schools.
The Orleans Parish School District, which is overseen by an elected school board, ran all the public schools in New Orleans before Katrina. It was in serious trouble before the storm: It was bankrupt and couldn’t account for $71 million in federal funds.
But after Katrina, the Orleans Parish district emerged to control the city’s best-functioning public schools. Five of the OPSD charter schools were given an “A” rating on Louisiana’s A to F report card for 2013. By contrast, none of the Recovery district’s charter schools earned an “A” rating that year.
Those high-performing schools in the Orleans Parish district also enroll a disproportionate number of white children, which has sparked protest from community activists who say that admission policies to some of the OPSD schools have the effect of excluding African American children.
For example, five of 14 charter schools overseen by OPSD participate in the city’s OneApp process, a common, computerized lottery system that parents use to secure a public school spot for their children.
All schools in the Recovery School District participate in the OneApp. But nine OPSD schools do not, requiring families to apply individually to those schools. That’s a tall order for many parents, activist Karran Harper Royal said, because it assumes they have information about the schools and understand the schools’ various deadlines and admission requirements.
Royal and others have filed a federal civil rights complaint charging that the public school landscape in New Orleans discriminates against African American students. The complaint, filed with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, targets the state education department and the Recovery School District, but not the Orleans Parish School District.
The Recovery School District has been trying to improve transparency and equity, district officials said. It uses the OneApp to centrally manage placements and prevent schools from unfairly turning away some students on the pretense that their classes are full. And it instituted a common expulsion process so that charters cannot apply different disciplinary standards and unilaterally expel students. Instead, all proposals for expulsion go through a central hearing process run by Recovery School District officials.
Louisiana’s superintendent of education, John White, said there is a clear problem with equal access to the best OPSD public schools. But he said the state is prevented by law from interfering with the way the elected Orleans Parish School Board runs its schools.
Stan Smith, the acting superintendent of the OPSD, defended his system Thursday. He noted that the OPSB has adopted a new policy that requires all charters to participate in the OneApp at the time they renew their charters, which will range from two years to 10 years from now.
“It was not by agreement of the charters; it was by policy adopted by OPSB that these charters will be converted to OneApp at their next renewal,” Smith wrote in an e-mail.
He also addressed the characterization that OPSB is a selective-admission district.
“Four of our charters have some form of admission criteria,” he said. “These charters are type 3 charters, which are conversion of a traditional school. Two of these schools were citywide-access magnet schools prior to converting to charter, and they retained the criteria as a charter. One of the schools operates a French immersion program and has criteria tied to this program.”