In the decade since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and swept away its public school system, the city has become a closely watched experiment in whether untethering schools from local politics could fix the problems that have long ailed urban education.
Louisiana seized control of most New Orleans schools and turned them into charter schools after the devastating storm in 2005. More than 90 percent of the city’s children attend charters, which are publicly funded but privately run by unelected officials who have complete freedom to decide how to organize their programs, schedules, teachers and curriculum.
Test scores and graduation rates have risen. And the state is poised to relinquish its oversight: The governor is expected to sign a bill that would return the 52 schools the state oversees to a measure of local control.
Many charter-school advocates describe it as an inevitable next step in the city’s bold education experiment, one that could serve as a road map for other cities grappling with how to manage and coordinate a large number of charter schools.
“If they can get that right, it will be really important for New Orleans and for the country,” said Neerav Kingsland, who worked for New Schools for New Orleans from 2006 to 2014, when it started dozens of new charter schools. “You can’t avoid democracy forever, nor should you.”
Proponents of the bill, including many charter-school advocates, are calling it a “reunification” of New Orleans schools, putting the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board back in charge of the city’s schools but leaving control of individual operations in the hands of each charter school’s leaders. They say it is an important step in closing the wounds left by the state takeover without sacrificing the autonomies that they say have been essential for driving academic progress.
“I do think this is the start of a healing process for a lot of individuals, to realize that the city is coming back together,” said Jamar McKneely, the chief executive of InspireNOLA Charter Schools.
But some critics say that it is a whitewash, written to appear as though local control over public education will be restored — when the bill leaves most of the power in the hands of the unelected boards of directors who run each of the city’s charter schools.
Karran Harper Royal, an advocate for special-education students and their families, called it a “Trojan horse.”
“This is the kind of bill you get when the charter schools want to give the impression that schools are returning to local governance,” she said. “It feels like a very patriarchal view of communities of color, and white people deciding that black people, or people of color, don’t deserve democracy.”
Although improving, the schools are far from excellent. And there are lingering questions about whether and how a bunch of independent schools — which are under pressure to meet academic targets to continue operating — can ensure access to education for all students, especially those with the greatest needs.
Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) is widely expected to sign the bill, which was introduced by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D) of New Orleans and was supported by the majority of the New Orleans state delegation. It outlines the transfer of schools from the state-run Recovery School District to the locally elected school board by 2019 at the latest.
But the parish school board — which runs half a dozen schools and oversees more than a dozen charter schools — would be prohibited from interfering with school-level decisions about several issues, including instruction, schedules, staffing, contracting and collective bargaining.
Instead, the district superintendent and board members would be responsible for reviewing schools’ performance and deciding whether they have met their targets and should be allowed to continue operating.
The district also would take on other functions that state officials perform, such as running the city’s annual school enrollment lottery, which determines where children will go, and managing its centralized expulsion system.
Henderson Lewis, a former New Orleans charter-school principal who serves as the superintendent of the Orleans Parish School Board, said that the charter movement has served the city well, providing students with a stronger education and a better shot at graduating from high school than before Katrina.
Lewis, who helped write the language in the bill, said that the district is on firm financial footing and has shown during the past decade that it can hold charter schools accountable for meeting performance targets.
“It’s time that schools return under local control,” he said. He acknowledged the desire among parents to be able to send their children nearer their homes, and he said he is working on proposals to that end. But he said that does not require returning to a traditional system of schools controlled by an elected board: “As far as going back to where we were pre-Katrina, we’re in a different place now in New Orleans, and that’s not the system of schools that we have.”
Recovery District Superintendent Patrick Dobard — who played a key role in writing the plan — said the state never envisioned itself as the long-term steward of New Orleans schools. “The spirit of the original law was for the schools to be returned in some way to local control,” he said.
Opponents of the plan for New Orleans also include some charter-school advocates who worry that the Orleans Parish School Board is not willing or able to serve as a regulator, rather than an operator, of the schools it stands to absorb.
Perhaps the most common doubt is whether the elected board will be willing to make unpopular decisions to close schools that fall short of performance targets.
The architects of the plan tried to insulate those decisions from politics: The Orleans Parish superintendent would be responsible for making a recommendation, and the school board would not be able to overturn it without at least a two-thirds majority.
Critics say that is just one more way in which the bill removes public education from the voice of the people. Proponents called it an effort to depoliticize decisions that should be about what children need, not necessarily what voters want.
The bill would enshrine the system of choice that has defined New Orleans education for the past decade: Students will continue to enroll in schools via a lottery instead of by neighborhood assignment.
Advocates for such choice frame it as a way to ensure that all children have fair access to good schools, no matter where their families live or how much money they earn. But critics argue that eliminating neighborhood schools has undermined the most vulnerable students by uprooting them from their communities and scattering them to schools citywide.
Harper Royal pointed to a 2015 Tulane University study estimating that there are more than 26,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor employed in the New Orleans metro area. They account for 18 percent of all the area’s young people, significantly higher than the national average of 13 percent.
Such high numbers of disconnected youth — as well as high rates of child poverty and unemployment — should factor into how the city’s education experiment is evaluated, she said: “You have to look at how it is working in the lives of the people, and it isn’t.”
She favors a competing bill that would have returned the schools to the Orleans Parish School Board without preserving the system of charter schools.
That measure, written by state Rep. Joseph Bouie (D), died in committee this spring. Bouie said that the plan awaiting the governor’s signature impinges upon the constitutional authority of the school board by tightly regulating what it can and cannot do. He predicted that it would trigger legal complaints.
“The community is in an uproar,” he said. “Right now there are groups in the community trying to organize to see how they can respond to it.”