New Orleans

Don’t believe everything you hear about the New Orleans charter revolution

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

As public school students settle into the school year, they can’t seem to shake off a bit of inaccurate national attention: The belief that New Orleans has the country’s first all-charter school system.

That’s wrong on two counts. The city still has a handful of traditional public schools, and the array of more than 70 charter schools can hardly be called a system, though that’s beginning to change.

With the larger of the city’s two educational oversight agencies now consisting of only charters, and the other with a majority of charters, few would dispute that traditional schools are almost an afterthought when discussing public education in the city.

Sixth grade students Miracle Roberson, left, Darion James, and Brianetay Martin, right, read during literature intervention class at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Sixth grade students Miracle Roberson, left, Darion James, and Brianetay Martin, right, read during literature intervention class at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

But there is a continuing debate over which of the two entities should provide broad oversight to the autonomous charters — the state-run Recovery School District or the Orleans Parish School Board, which had to surrender oversight of the failing schools.

New Orleans is far and away the urban center most influenced by charters — so the city’s educational changes have attracted the attention of policymakers nationwide. Indeed, more than 90 percent of the city’s public-school students attended charter schools in 2013-14.

The Lens is partnering with The Hechinger Report on a continuing, in-depth look at this first year in which all schools under control of the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans have become charters, making it a one-of-a-kind district in the country.

Related: What will New Orleans’ move to an all-charter school district mean for the city’s schoolchildren?

The district now is managing relationships with the traditional school board, with the dozens of charter boards overseeing schools and with other authorizing agencies. With varying degrees of success, the different bureaucracies cooperate to dole out campus space, coordinate back-office duties and work together on enrollment and special education services, among other things.

The academic results in the recovery district charters have been remarkably uneven, with some closing because of dismal performance, and other upstarts posting higher scores in some grades than the longtime academic leaders.

As New Orleans approaches the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2015, you’ll see a swell of reporting that takes a hard look at improvements made over the past decade, as well as work still to be done in the city. But you won’t see a 10th anniversary story of the Recovery School District — because it was formed well before the storm, not as a result of it.

The real story of the New Orleans charter conversion

An out-of-state reporter recently checked a seemingly obvious fact with the head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools: The “recovery” in the Recovery School District’s name refers to coming back from Katrina, right?

Not at all, explained Executive Director Caroline Roemer Shirley, who runs the trade and lobbying group.

“It was Katrina, however, that physically wiped out New Orleans infrastructure and governance as it relates to public education,” she said.

Second grader Jana Hicks plays in the schoolyard at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Second grader Jana Hicks plays in the schoolyard at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The district was formed in 2003 to help failing schools recover academically. And it’s designed to work with schools statewide, not just in New Orleans, though the city was largely the target of the initial legislation. It was a logical step in the state’s accountability program formed in the mid-1990’s. Once you had a system to measure schools and then found them lacking year after year, what would you do with them?

If a school posted failing scores for four consecutive years, the Recovery School District could take it over to facilitate improvement.

“If, however, a school improved enough to lose its failing label, the school would revert to school district control,” education reporter Aesha Rasheed wrote in the Times-Picayune in September 2003. (Rasheed left journalism and went on to become the board president of the Morris Jeff Community School, a well-regarded charter.)

Before Hurricane Katrina, the recovery district had taken over five city schools that had been deemed ‘failing.’

Related: Nine years after Katrina, we’re still asking the wrong questions about education

Katrina left a significant portion of New Orleans under water, few people and even fewer children in the city, and forced the vast majority of city schools to cancel the 2005-06 school year.

In a special session of the Louisiana Legislature less than two months after the storm, with much of the population still displaced, lawmakers significantly changed the threshold for “failing” and allowed for the takeover of a failing district — a clear response to a school system in crisis that couldn’t even open its doors.

The legislature then voted to place 107 of the 128 public schools in New Orleans under control of the recovery district. Orleans Parish maintained control of the rest, which were higher performing.

One thing that didn’t change after Katrina was the heavy enrollment in private and parochial schools. According a Times-Picayune analysis of state data, even before the storm, in 2002, about 22 percent of school-age children attended a non-public school. That’s among the highest in the nation. That figure was 20 percent in 2013.

These schools generally serve a self-selected, financially capable group of parents intent on getting their money’s worth, with some private schools now charging tuition and fees of as much as $20,000. That left the Orleans Parish School Board with an enrollment of relatively low-income parents less able in many cases to assist or participate in their children’s education.

So the creation of the Recovery School District took an already deeply troubled system and cleaved off the worst-performing schools.

Time for the RSD to get out of New Orleans?

The RSD is a special school district that operates under the control of the Louisiana Department of Education Over the past eight years, it has shifted from a centrally controlled system that directly oversaw and governed schools, to one that grants charters to interested groups meeting certain criteria. Those schools have their own boards that operate autonomously and set school curricula and policy. As an authorizer, though, the district still maintains a broad but remote responsibility for the schools. This year, the district moved its last school from direct-run to charter, creating the unique system that invites so much scrutiny.

Accordingly, the RSD has significantly cut its budget and staff. Superintendent Patrick Dobard now oversees the RSD portfolio of charter schools and a much smaller staff that evaluates charters for compliance and renewals.

Students study at Akili Academy, one of dozens of charter schools in New Orleans. (Photo: Sarah Garland)

The recovery district has reduced its operating budget from $394 million in 2008-09 to a projected $47 million this year, according to a recent news report.

If the initial goal of the recovery district was to swoop in, turn around failing schools and hand them back to the publicly elected school board in better shape, it hasn’t gotten there yet. That’s because it’s not up to the recovery district or the school board to decide when charters move back to local control.

A 2010 policy change at the state level allowed charters to decide if they would like to return to local control, instead of requiring the transfer. No eligible charter school’s board of directors has voted to return to the traditional board.

If you ask school board member Ira Thomas, he thinks it is time for the Recovery School District to hit the road.

“It’s time now, in my opinion, for the Recovery School District to exit the city of New Orleans,” Thomas said.

Related: Recovery School District charters inching past historic top-performers in New Orleans

While the lingering oversight includes keeping a watchful eye on charter’s academic and financial success, it also includes decisions on facilities.

“They are attempting to cement their presence and longevity in this city through managing school buildings,” Thomas said. “That’s the responsibility of the Orleans Parish School Board.”

Indeed, while the Orleans Parish School Board owns the majority of the city’s public school property, the recovery district took over operation of the properties when schools were turned over. In addition to that, the district and the board are jointly overseeing billions — with a B — of FEMA dollars that are repairing schools.

“The Recovery School District has exhausted its academic purpose in the City of New Orleans,” Thomas said.

The local school board fought to regain oversight of the recovery charters — actually making a legal bid to attempt to regain control of recovery schools no longer considered failing. But the district lost its case. And the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear the district’s appeal earlier this year.

Thomas said legislation originally spelled out a return process after five years of successful scores. But that 2010 policy change lets charter schools make the decision for themselves.

Shirley, of the state charter school association, said whether the recovery district was created with a spirit of permanency is up for debate.

The district may continue to be a parallel operation to the Orleans Parish School Board for a while, she suggests, and she’s got no problem with that.

Given the choice, no school wants to return to a district that can’t select a superintendent after more than two years, or to a district that has grueling, contentious board meetings.

“Until they get their politics straight nobody’s going back,” she said.

Shirley said the return of schools to local control should not be about the successful turnaround of the once-failing school — but the condition of the entity that initially failed it.

“What have they done that would make us feel more comfortable that they’ve made adjustments?” Shirley asked of the public school system’s central office.

“I think (the fact that no school has returned) falls directly to the feet of current leadership of the Orleans Parish School Board and their failure to demonstrate at any level assurance and ability to oversee the RSD portfolio,” Shirley said.

Many charters argue they want to retain their autonomy, ability to directly accept federal dollars directly and spend them as they see fit, and not pay for a central office overhead, and therefore stay with the recovery district.

Thomas says the school board worked to pass legislation that allows charter schools to maintain that autonomy by keeping their status as a local education agency if they were to return to local oversight.

In regards to the lack of a permanent superintendent Thomas said, “That is totally inconsequential to the return of charters.”

He said Orleans Parish charters have operated just fine despite having an interim superintendent, Stan Smith, at the helm for more than two years.

Thomas says to his knowledge the School Board is not pursuing any of the charters that to this point have been uninterested in returning to local control. He said the School Board has addressed the issues charters raised.

He said he believes it is time for the state school board “to require those schools to return to the auspices of the local school board.”

Thomas noted taking on eligible recovery charter schools could mean schools with a “C” letter grade from the state, which means they are operating at lower level academically than the current Orleans Parish schools.

“The Orleans Parish School Board would be taking on [an academic] liability,” Thomas said.

“We did reach out to them and did what we thought they needed to have secured for them,” Thomas said, addressing the issue of autonomy.

“Outside of that I don’t know what other issues are lingering.”

As the year unfolds hopeful charter operators will apply to run schools, others may learn they have to shut down, and some may be taken over or absorbed by larger charter networks.

The 2014-15 school year is already another year of firsts, but that’s normal around here.

Marta Jewson is the education reporter for The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast working in partnership with The Hechinger Report to bring coverage of New Orleans public schools.

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