by Julia Steiny
In 2003, Louisiana’s state department of education created the Recovery School District (RSD). New Orleans’s schools were among the worst in the country, so the state asked the RSD to start with 5 that were the worst of the worst. While the RSD officials knew the state would likely add more schools, they never dreamed that in 2005, Hurricane Katrina would suddenly jack the total number up to 102.
The jury is in. The RSD did a whole lot better by the kids than the old Orleans Parish School District. The graduation rate is up by 23 percentage points since 2005. In 2007 only 23 percent of the kids K-12 were on grade level in math and reading, but now 57 percent are. Nowhere in America has a school system leaped forward so fast. Apparently, it takes a hurricane to inspire that much responsiveness to kids.
The critical thing to know is that the RSD never wanted to be a traditional school district. They weren’t sure what their district structure would or should look like. But they knew the traditional Central Office model hadn’t worked in spectacular ways, so they seized the opportunity to avoid reproducing it. Good choice.
I’ve always marveled that Central Offices have managed to hang on as the industry standard. Except in tiny districts, Central Offices make life-altering decisions about kids’ education at a distance from the schools themselves. They negotiate labor contracts and set policies that principals have to make work, somehow. Central Offices often require certain professional-development training without consulting building-level staff. Such decisions, labor contracts and districtwide policies effectively micro-manage the work of people who actually know the unique set of students attending their building. Repeatedly, reformers tried to collapse the disconnect by implementing “site-based management,” whereby the school controls budgets, curriculum, hiring and so forth. But such efforts rarely withstand Central Office’s overwhelming urges to reclaim and subjugate schools.
Furthermore, Central Office is a natural petri dish for culturing adult needs that infect the educational health of the kids. Look no further than the 2003 Orleans Parish District which couldn’t account for $71 million in federal dollars. Its School Board President was headed to jail for taking bribes — on top of managing terrible schools. So the RSD accidently became the nation’s first radical experiment in Central Office redesign.
When Katrina hit, neither the Orleans nor the Recover districts had much capacity to speak of. In the wake of the storm, they had to get schools up and running fast. Orleans, with a Board that still fights publicly, held onto a handful of higher-performing schools in less-devastated areas. The RSD had the rest and so turned to charter operators, both big charter management organizations and small independent groups who submitted proposals. The state and feds both kicked in dollars to rehab some of the old school buildings. And fortunately, some of the charter-world’s best young talent, who’d already started successful schools elsewhere, were excited by the prospect of creating new schools in the city then riveting the nation’s attention.
The RSD was still managing 34 traditional schools even as it handed out charters. But what a pain. Acting as Central Office by default, they still had to hire staff, develop policy and manage endless individual budgets. Try as they might, their schools were of poorer quality than the charters, on average.
Charters are effectively contracts, usually for 5 years. If their officials mismanage funds or produce failing students, the charter is revoked. Closing any school is upsetting and unpleasant, but with charters everyone knows the rules of accountability up front. So increasingly, the RSD transferred their own authority to independent operators who manage themselves, and have full responsibility to use educational strategies that actually succeed. Or go out of business, as some have.
Eventually the RSD announced they would phase out their own Central Office duties entirely. As of this coming fall, the RSD will have no district-run schools. They will be a lean infrastructure that oversees a portfolio of charter schools. Their responsibilities will include collecting data and holding all schools to accountability standards. They built a single-application system so parents can apply to 8 schools at once, ranking their preferences, instead of dropping off applications all over town. That system allows the RSD to monitor equity and access for all kids, especially those with special needs. Likely they’ll help the schools where economies of scale apply, with health insurance and technology purchases, for example. The first pure-charter experiment will surely stumble and make mistakes — and already has — but the new problems will never be as inhumane as letting kids languish in terrible schools indefinitely. And the lessons learned could be invaluable for other cities struggling with their school systems.
In fact, the officials governing the schools in Washington D.C., Newark, Kansas City and Detroit are closely watching this experiment. Would converting to an all-charter portfolio pull more of their students out of the academic mud? Fortunately New Orleans has experimented so bravely that a cure for Central Office ineffectiveness might be on the horizon. Stay tuned on this one.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.