Louisiana Lawmakers Vote to Return New Orleans to Local Control

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Lawmakers in Louisiana voted unanimously to return New Orleans public schools to local control, but there remains skepticism that the move will impede the progress made in the school system over the last ten years.

In the decade since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Louisiana seized control of the New Orleans public school system and turned them into charter schools. Today, more than 90% of schoolchildren in New Orleans attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

Throughout the decade, test scores and graduation rates have risen steeply. New Orleans educators and students have reaped the benefits of changed education policies and shudder at the possibility of returning to a time before charter schools. “Prior to the reforms, we were graduating kids from high school who couldn’t read or write,” says Ver Triplett, a CEO of a local charter network. “It just wasn’t that we weren’t educating students well, in many cases, we weren’t educating students at all.”

Many advocates of charter schools, according to Emma Brown of The Washington Post, argue that New Orleans can serve as an example for other cities grappling with how to manage and coordinate a large number of charters. Effectively, New Orleans is an almost all-charter, state-controlled district.

Now, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill, which was introduced by state Senator Karen Carter Peterson, a Democrat representing New Orleans, that will return the city’s schools to a locally elected school board.

As reported by Kate Zernike of The New York Times, the “reunification” of New Orleans schools is being spearheaded by Louisiana state superintendent John White, a longtime promoter of charter schools. He believes that New Orleans will redefine the role of central schools boards in urban areas. Under his model, schools will retain the flexibility and autonomy offered by the charter school model, allowing them to hire and design curricula. The board, by contrast, will function as a manager and regulator of the school system and will deal with issues individual schools cannot.

Critics of the reunification, as detailed by the The 74 Million, worry that once local control is restored, schools will lose their momentum. They believe that the “return” will precipitate the comeback of the notoriously dysfunctional school board before the storm. “If this is not done well, we will go backwards as a city,” says Leslie Jacobs, a local philanthropist. The bill promises to prevent the local board from interfering with schools’ autonomy.

Furthermore, some criticize the whole charter school model that has taken root throughout New Orleans. Opponents of charter schools accuse the model of siphoning money from local districts, steering away the most challenging students, and sapping the best students from poor black and Latino communities.

“It is written to serve the needs and desires of the charter school movement and the predators and profiteers that have unapologetically gained from this experiment, not the people, parents, students, voters and taxpayers of school systems that have been decimated by a so-called reform movement that has done far more harm than good,” wrote editorialists in The New Orleans Tribune, a black newsmagazine.