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New Orleans schools to reunify

Louisiana created the Recovery School District two years before Katrina
Reunited soon: Students from public Mary Bethune Elementary School of Literature & Technology will soon reunify into one district with New Orleans’ charter schools.
Reunited soon: Students from public Mary Bethune Elementary School of Literature & Technology will soon reunify into one district with New Orleans’ charter schools.

For the first time in the United States, a charter-based district will be accountable to its local school board, as the Louisiana Legislature voted in May to reverse the 2005 state takeover of most of New Orleans’ public schools.

Senate Bill 432 transitions 52 Recovery School District charters back to the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board by July 2018, unifying the system once more and giving local control back to the community.

“The legislation that has passed is an incredible opportunity for all of us in New Orleans to build an excellent school system,” Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a statement. “The legislation puts all responsibility for our schools into the hands of the local community, while preserving the accountability and autonomy that have led to such great success over the past several years.”

Two years before Katrina, Louisiana created the Recovery School District and began taking over failing schools in New Orleans. After Katrina, the state took over more schools—including ones that were higher-performing than those that had been taken over before the storm. Nearly all schools in New Orleans were then converted to charters.

“The thinking had always been that it was a temporary move—the state would reinvigorate the system and then hand the schools back to the local school board,” says Jon Valant, postdoctoral fellow at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. “Now, more than 10 years after Katrina, a lot of people started asking if it was time.”

The law preserves the operational autonomy of charter schools and bars the Orleans Parish School Board from controlling charters’ curricula, calendars, hiring and firing, employee evaluations, salaries, and other day-to-day operations.

However, Orleans Parish School Board will take over management of the city’s enrollment system, OneApp, which matches students to schools based on building admission priorities, seat availability and families’ requests.

The board will also set expulsion policies, handle truancy problems, and operate the program for students with psychological problems—all of which are currently run by Recovery School District employees.

Healing a community

Many New Orleans residents felt the city’s post-Katrina reforms, including the school system takeover, were done without community input, as residents were overwhelmed with damage from the storm, Valant says.

The state’s 2005 vote also led to the firing of 7,600 employees, mostly African-American, from the system. From 2004 to 2014, the prevalence of black teachers in New Orleans dropped from 71 percent to 49 percent, according to the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

“There are very sensitive emotions and politics around local control,” Valant says. “In this country, we have a history of letting local communities govern their own schools, and people feel strongly that they should have that ability—particularly if the communities next door all do.”