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On President’s Day, a town hall was convened by the Orleans Parish School Board to update the community on its efforts to take nearly 50 schools back into its fold by July 2018. The schools had been taken over by the state-run Recovery School District in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The school superintendent talked about the unification process and whether the district incorporated community feedback, but the question that kept surfacing was about who really controlled the school district.
New Orleans still has over a year before that question needs to be decisively answered but perhaps more important for concerned parents is not the question of control, but one of equity.
Equity in education refers to the concept of fairness, meaning that students at different levels of learning are offered the resources they need to succeed. As an educational term, it’s not as well known as school autonomy — the extent to which a school leader can make decisions about his or her school — or the ability to enroll a child in a school of one’s liking, also known as choice. New Orleans has been branded a “choice system” primarily because it has maximized these two principles of school autonomy and choice more than any other district in the county, using charter schools, a voucher program and a computerized enrollment system. That bundle of choice is credited for the rise in test scores post-Hurricane Katrina.
But for all their choice, New Orleans schools are also known for allowing their most vulnerable students to fall through the cracks. Systemic failures allowed special needs students to not receive services, led to severe reductions in black teachers from 74 percent before the storm to 51 percent in 2012, in a city that’s 63 percent black, and inconsistent delivery of basic services like transportation, not to mention over-the-top disciplinary practices.
It is the pursuit of equity in New Orleans post-Katrina that is credited for reducing the still-high suspension and expulsion rates, as well as ensuring that special-needs students are educated. But lawsuits have pushed equity when independent schools were slow to act. For example, in 2010, the hate-watch group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and other advocacy organizations filed a federal lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Education. The SPLC sought corrective action to their findings that students with special needs were denied services; schools didn’t apply consistent policies to identify and evaluate students’ needs; and schools did not develop adequate review processes for students’ records.
The Louisiana Department of Education settled that suit in 2015 by consent decree, meaning that the state agreed to allow its schools to be closely monitored to ensure it made necessary improvements. But instead of being forced into doing better by lawsuits, New Orleans can improve its schools by proactively pursuing equity for its students.
Recently, three groups have come together to provide the school district — and concerned parents — a way to do just that. Next month, they plan to release a website called The New Orleans Equity Index. Its main feature will be a search engine that people can use to look up their neighborhood school and discover how their school compares to others on equity issues, such as how it caters to special-needs students and kids for whom English is not their first language, as well as its graduation rates, a crude but known indicator of school quality. The project plans to compile equity-related data from schools so that officials, parents and other members of the community can offset the effects of too much choice. The Equity Index is jointly led by advocacy groups Orleans Public Education Network (OPEN), Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR) and Converge Consulting.
Currently, parents select schools for their kids based on letter grades that Louisiana issues for every school based on a few factors, of which achievement test scores are disproportionately important. But parents need to put letter grades in context, and this new tool could help. A high grade doesn’t necessarily make a school good from an equity standpoint. The equity index will allow users to see other characteristics of a school — such as whether or not students have to pass a test before being granted admission, or the percentage of enrolled students who are poor, or the racial demographics of the student body — that collectively portray its commitment to equity.
The index will also give users information on the racial composition of teachers. Research has shown that black teachers have higher expectations of their black students than white teachers do, are responsible for their students scoring higher on tests and provide white students with positive examples that challenge stereotypes. But black teachers are underrepresented in New Orleans. Parents should know how a school district or charter school network does in recruiting teachers of color.
It’s to be hoped the school district sees the Equity Index and similar services as partners in ensuring equity in our schools. New Orleans can stand to be known for something other than being a choice district. Rather, students will be better off when New Orleans is known as an equity district.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.