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By July 1, 2018, all schools under the Recovery School District-New Orleans will be under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board. But what does that really mean?

Dr. Raynard Sanders

In the summer of 2016, the mainstream media and others hailed the return of public schools from the state-run Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board. The return was viewed by many as an accomplishment as they boasted that the schools were returning after making dramatic academic performance compared to the poor academic performance public schools in New Orleans pre-Hurricane Katrina. In reality, the unification plan does not mean that schools have improved or that the elected school board will have any real governance power. Consider that in an article in The Advocate in August 2016, Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, warned the local Orleans Parish School Board, “As the primary authorizer for public schools in Orleans Parish, OPSB needs to. . . restructure itself accordingly so that it serves as a thought and support partner for its schools”.  To be sure, words like “authorizer” and “support partner” hardly equate to real local governance.

While there were tainted voices from the community and the media declaring that the autonomy of the charter school boards and good leadership were responsible for improved academic performance after Hurricane Katrina, numerous researchers and journalists here in New Orleans and across the country have found that charter schools in New Orleans have consistently scored lower than public schools across the state of Louisiana on mandated state tests and the ACT Test (a national college admission test). The education reform efforts have also been criticized for the less than honest pronouncement of issues around access and equity, serving special needs students and fiscal mismanagement.

Remembering How the reform in New Orleans happened

In the name of school reform, within months after Hurricane Katrina, state officials along with powerful national organizations decided to drastically change the delivery model of public education in New Orleans from a system of public schools governed by an elected school board to a system of charter schools managed by unelected individual charter school boards.  The Louisiana Legislature passed ACT 35 on November 29, 2005, while the city was mostly depopulated after Hurricane Katrina. ACT 35 changed the requirements for state takeover of schools by raising the required minimum School Performance Score (SPS) score and redefining “academically acceptable”  and “academically unacceptable”. A school’s SPS is a composite score based on one of three student performance exams, the school’s dropout rate and its student attendance rate. Before Hurricane Katrina, a SPS score of 60 was the cutoff score for a school to be labeled acceptable. Any school in Louisiana that was designated Academic Unacceptable (AU) for four consecutive years and showed no improvement was eligible for state takeover and placed under the jurisdiction of the Louisiana Department of Education’s Recovery School District (RSD).

Act 35 significantly changed the rules by raising the minimum SPS score to 87.4 even if these schools had not been AU for four straight years. Act 35 also expanded the state’s takeover authority so that it applied to school districts with more than 30 “failing” schools and with at least 50 percent of their student population in academically unacceptable schools. The 30- failing school provision meant that Act 35 had a unique impact on Orleans Parish, the state’s largest school district. Given the fact that 50 of Louisiana’s 64 parish school districts have fewer than 30 schools, the vast majority of parishes will never be affected by the 30-failing school threshold. When Act 35 was written, only, seven parishes had more than 40 schools; and Orleans Parish had far more public schools than any other district—47 more than the next largest district. Overnight, the new lines drawn by Act 35 distorted the appearance of school failure in New Orleans. Public schools in New Orleans that received awards from the Louisiana Department of Education in May of 2005 were suddenly failing. A 2006 report by the United Teachers of New Orleans titled “National Model or Flawed Approach?” noted that if Louisiana officials had applied pre-Act 35 standards to Orleans Parish, the state could have assumed control of only 13 schools in New Orleans. Given the fact that ACT 35 only affected New Orleans, it was discriminatory and illegal as its citizens were suddenly removed from the public education process, while locally elected school boards were still managing every other school district in the state.

What school Reform in New Orleans looks like

The Orleans Parish School Board will exercise little control over charter schools under the unification plan, essentially having veto power only when school management organizations seek to renew their charters.

Despite the well-financed PR campaign by state education officials, school reform in New Orleans using charter schools as the new vehicle, has been a failure both academically and operationally. Charter schools created under the Recovery School District have consistently had the lowest SPS scores in the state of Louisiana. Since 2006, the charter schools in New Orleans have consistently scored poorly on state mandated test. All external analysis of test scores found poor academic performance by the Recovery School District’s charter schools. One of the early signs of trouble came from the Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Race and Poverty in a 2010 report titled “The State of Public Schools in Post-Katrina New Orleans: The Challenge of Creating Equal Opportunity”, which stated:

• Rebuilding of the public school system in post-Katrina New Orleans has produced a five “tiered” system of public schools in which not every student in the city receives the same quality education.

• The “tiered” system of public schools in the city of New Orleans sorts White students and a relatively small share of students of color into selective schools in the OPSB and BESE sectors, while steering the majority of low-income students of color to high-poverty schools in the RSD sector.

  Despite declarations to the contrary, the flawed one-App program actually puts the power of choice in the hands of schools more so than parents or students and only adds to the challenge of ensuring that every child in Orleans Parish has access to a quality education.

• The “tiered” system of public schools in Orleans Parish creates a tiered performance hierarchy and sorts White students and a few minority of students of color into higher performing schools while restricting the majority of low-income students of color into lower performing schools.

In 2015, some 10 years after the school reforms were implemented, noted researcher Michael Deshotels reported that:

• 83 percent of the public-school systems in the state of Louisiana produce better test results than the Recovery School District.

• 94 percent of the other public systems produce better ACT results than the Recovery School District’s high schools. In 2015, the median ACT score for the charter schools in the New Orleans’ Recovery School District would not get its students into any Louisiana college or university.

• The Recovery School District is very near the bottom among the 70 Louisiana school systems in percentage of students graduating from high school. The RSD graduation rate of 61.1 percent is dead last in the state, not counting the kids who drop out as early as seventh and eighth grades.

• Even though most Recovery School District’s schools are advertised as college prep, only 5.5 percent of RSD students taking Advanced Placement courses passed the credit exams.

Riddled with mismanagement and corruption

More recently, researcher Dr. Mercedes Schneider stated, “It is even worse press to note that 12 years after that post-Katrina, state-yanking of schools, those schools have returned to OPSB (sort of– all-charter RSD schools are still under charter management organizations), and the entire district has fallen to a D in 2017, a year when most Louisiana districts either retained the letter grade they had in 2016 or even increased the letter grade from 2016 to 2017”.

In addition to the poor academic performance charter schools in New Orleans, the so-call reform effort has been riddled with fiscal mismanagement and corruption. The Recovery School District has been cited in numerous Louisiana Legislative Auditor reports for not following state and federal policy. Additionally, for nine consecutive years, the Recovery School District did not maintain and accurately report equipment as required by state regulations. Most troubling is the lack of fiscal oversight from which charter schools in New Orleans were created and have operated the last 12 years.

In its report, “System Failure: Louisiana’s Broken Charter School Law,” the Center for Popular Democracy described the lack of oversight and noted the corruption at charter schools. The report notes that the rapid growth and massive investment in charter schools have been accompanied by a dramatic underinvestment in oversight, leaving Louisiana’s students, parents, teachers and taxpayers at risk of academic failures and financial fraud. The state’s failure to create an effective financial oversight system is obvious, as Louisiana charter schools have experienced millions of dollars in known losses from fraud and financial mismanagement so far, which is likely just the tip of the iceberg.

This lack of oversight yielded a barrage of unheard of corruption at charter schools in New Orleans. The Center for Popular Democracy cited a few incidents of corruption at charter schools in New Orleans:

• In February 2010, the former business manager of Langston Hughes Academy plead guilty to stealing over $600,000 from the charter school by making more than 150 cash withdrawals from Hughes’ operating account over 15 months.

• In 2011, an employee of Lusher Charter School’s accounting department embezzled $25,000 by forging five checks she wrote to herself from the school’s bank account. The school discovered the theft and it was reported in its annual financial audit

• An employee of KIPP New Orleans Inc., the operator of six charter schools in Orleans Parish, misappropriated two checks totaling almost $70,000.

• In May 2014, a special investigation by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor found that from January 2012 through September 2013, ReNew Charter Management Organization provided inaccurate information to the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana (TRSL) to allow 21 ineligible employees at five schools participate in the teachers’ pension fund.

• The operations manager stole over $9,000 from Arise Schools, a New Orleans-based charter group. The theft was made public in a 2014 audit but was discovered by the school when they noticed money missing from a debit card. The employee twice bought $1,500 in gift cards with the organization’s debit card, in March and June 2014.

Most importantly, the school reform pushed down the throats of the citizens of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina removed democracy from the citizens of New Orleans. Citizens have had no formal participation in the selection process of superintendent for the Recovery School District. The Louisiana Superintendent of Education has chosen all of the Recovery Schools District’s five superintendents since 2005. Taxpayers, citizens and parents have never been given an opportunity for input or comment on the Recovery School District’s budget. Meanwhile, since Hurricane Katrina, the Recovery School District’s budget rehas far exceeded the budgets of other school districts in Louisiana. They also have not had an opportunity to comment on the millions of dollars in contracts awarded at Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) meetings held in Baton Rouge usually on weekdays at 10 a.m. and have had little or no input formally in the $1.8 billion of dollars of FEMA funds awarded to the Orleans Parish and Recovery School District to renovate and build schools damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Unification of Schools

The fundamental issue with the school unification law or Louisiana Revised Statute (17:10.7.1) is that while schools are returning to the Orleans Parish School Board with tons of problems that need to be immediately addressed, they are also returning with the same unquestionable authority they have operated with for the last 13 years.

The law makes it clear that “unless mutually agreed to by both the charter school’s governing authority and the local school board pursuant to a duly authorized resolution adopted by each governing entity, the local school board shall not impede the operational autonomy of a charter school under its jurisdiction in the areas of school programming, instruction, curriculum, materials and texts, yearly school calendars and daily schedules, hiring and firing of personnel, employee performance management and evaluation, terms and conditions of employment, teacher or administrator certification, salaries and benefits, retirement, collective bargaining, budgeting, purchasing, procurement, and contracting for services other than capital repairs and facilities construction.”

With that, the only authority the elected local Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) has is when the charter school’s license is up for renewal. While the state of Louisiana has renewed numerous failing charter contracts over the years, the basic problems have been the charter school’s daily policies and practices that have resulted in more than a decade of failure academically and operationally. We can’t expect any improvement in our schools if they continue on the same path of failure they have been on since 2005. We cannot give this kind of unquestionable authority to unelected charter school boards that have a history of failure in addition to violating state and federal law.  Complicating the matter even more so is that despite having their hands tied, the OPSB is technically liable for the charter school’s operations.

The case for revisiting school unification is clear. Presently, Louisiana Revised Statute 17:10.7.1 does not have any accountability standards that guarantee a quality education for all children. In fact, it only benefits the charter operator who can continue its present course of academic and operational failure.

It has been a failure on all fronts and most importantly, it has removed public participation and puts total control of our public schools and tax dollars in the hands of unelected and self-appointed charter school boards.

This revisiting should be led by the locally elected school board, in an open and transparent process with the inclusion of the voices from all citizens, and not just the usual charter proponents/organizations that created this disaster.

Dr. Raynard Sanders is an educational consultant and researcher, former principal and college administrator. He has written numerous articles on education equity and the privatization of public education and recently authored two books The Coup D’état of the New Orleans Public School District: Money, Power and the Illegal Takeover of a Public School System and 21st Century Jim Crow Schools: The Impact of Charter Schools on Public Education. Dr. Sanders also hosts “The New Orleans Imperative,” a weekly radio show that focuses on public education in New Orleans at 1 p.m. (CST) Mondays on WHIV FM (102.3 FM).

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