New Orleans

A top charter advocate navigates rough policy waters in Louisiana

Researchers and reporters across the country are telling the world this month about the changes in New Orleans education since Hurricane Katrina, highlighting the unparalleled charter school expansion.

Lens education reporter Marta Jewson sat down recently to talk with Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. According to the mission of her organization, which is not part of government, it exists to “support, promote and advocate for the Louisiana charter school movement, increasing student access to high quality public schools statewide.” Roemer Shirley lives in New Orleans.

Q: Talk about the creation of the state accountability system and Recovery School District.

Roemer Shirley

A: The pathway to improvement in New Orleans and Louisiana in K-12 did not start with the Recovery School District. It actually started 20 years ago with establishing the idea of accountability in our K-12 system, which led to SPS (school performance scores), and expectations — some actual standards.

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A lot of other places are looking at what’s happening in New Orleans and this effort around replicating what some would say are the successes here.

If a place is considering trying to transform their education system, I don’t think they can do it without the right accountability framework in place. That framework established consequences for districts when they did not get schools to where we thought they should be academically.

That created the opportunity of the Recovery School District. When you [school district officials] don’t meet the standards, you may have that school taken away from you by the state [and placed under control of the RSD] to see if there are other options that can improve the performance of that school.

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It was not limited to New Orleans and it had nothing to do with Katrina.
It was recovery from academic failure. That Recovery School District legislation really hadn’t been tapped until right before the storm, when the first schools were placed in the Recovery School District.

Q: Could a nearly all-charter city have happened if not for the upheaval of Katrina?

I think it could happen in that we were such a low-performing district there were plenty of schools that would qualify for the Recovery School District. It just would have taken years and years. So instead, this happened in one swift moment.

Q: What do you think are the greatest triumphs of New Orleans charters in the last 20 years?

Depends on who you ask. I would say that academically, there have been improvements. I can’t say that it’s where it needs to be or that it’s good enough. We’re still not talking about schools that everybody wants to send their kids to.

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There’s been a drastic success around talking about public education. An awareness — by families, by taxpayers, by policy makers — that something wasn’t right here 10 years ago. And that we didn’t have a real sense of urgency about it. Whether someone believes in the direction we’ve gone or not, it’s hard to argue that we haven’t changed our outlook. We now have this really strong sense of urgency.

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That urgency can be both the good and the bad. I have an urgency that this is a better thing for kids and let’s keep it going. But there are others that have a sense of urgency that this isn’t the direction. The biggest success would be we’re talking about education in New Orleans and having really good debates.

The third success is the level of involvement we have in public education that would not have been there otherwise. And I specifically point to the fact that all of these charters have nonprofit boards that are made up of people who are volunteering their time, many of whom may not be in education otherwise. That can be both good and bad, as you know.

Q: What are the challenges that we still need to be overcome?

We’re still challenged to work with stakeholders — really parents, people who are making choices in public education — to fully understand how this is all working. I think there’s still a major challenge in how you pull the very people that we’re serving into the conversation. Again, to not only build an awareness with them, but to build a foundation in which those people feel like they have real input and some say in what’s happening.

A big piece of that is on the human-capital side and finding great principals and good teachers. But I do think for New Orleans, finding people that can do this very difficult work and who want to do it for the long term is going to be a big challenge.

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While I still love the idea of people from different walks of life, volunteers, having ownership of a school and really feeling passionate about what happens in that school, we still have a lot of work to do around ensuring they understand what their roles and responsibilities are — and giving them the tools and the information they need to make really good decisions on behalf of kids and teachers and taxpayers. It’s their money.

We have a lot of work to do with wrap-around services. I think a lot of those folks on the front lines working with kids would say we’re dealing with a population of kids that need so many other things beyond learning how to read and write: mental health services, social services, all those things. So that wrap-around services piece, I think is still a missing piece.

Q: The Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School board are two separate districts, both overseeing schools in the city. What do you think are the best elements of each?

What I think is unique about the Recovery School District is it’s an entity that is not intended to be forever. It makes some people upset when they hear ‘not meant to be forever.’ But it’s got a very specific mission: to improve schools.

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And I think that creates a different pathway for making decisions and how you focus on things and how you do that work. I find the Recovery School District to be much more about problem solving and addressing issues and trying to figure out how to move us away from an issue to a solution.

That’s versus, unfortunately, what I find in traditional school boards: a lot more grown-ups and politics. I don’t want to pretend that there’s not politics in the RSD.

I think that some would say a negative on the Recovery School District is that same thing, that it’s not a politically elected body. People question where, at the end of the day, is the accountability to the public. I happen to disagree with that concern but that is a legitimate conversation that many people have.

On the Orleans Parish School Board side, it’s harder for me to pick out what’s awesome. I don’t pretend to be a big fan of the traditional school board system. I would say the fact that they now really have to think about what it would take for schools to choose to come back there, I find that to be a positive.

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I said the Recovery School District isn’t meant to be around forever. But it has created something in which a school decides what makes sense for their school [regarding whether to leave the RSD and return to the OPSB]. And while some people feel hostile about that, I like that it sets a need for the district to take actions around the very things that caused schools to be less than successful. They need to think about that and change that.

This story was produced in partnership with The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

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