Something big has been decided about New Orleans schools. And it seemed to happen pretty fast. Governor John Bel Edwards has now signed legislation ordering that all New Orleans schools return to the control of the Orleans Parish School Board. But not nearly as much control as that board had before Katrina. Things will look very different than they did a decade ago.
It’s the start of the school day at Pierre A. Capdau Charter School, and a teacher kicks off the morning announcements. A handful of students gather in the front office, backpacks slung over their shoulders, to lead the pledge of allegiance and recite the school creed.
Capdau holds a significant place in New Orleans history. In the early 2000s, when New Orleans schools were doing so poorly that the state created a Recovery School District, it was the first to get taken over. After Katrina, nearly all New Orleans schools went under the RSD. This summer, Capdau will become one of the first to return to the Orleans Parish School Board.
“The goal was never for anyone to stay in recovery forever,” says Capdau principal Rulonda Green. “Kind of like a hospital, you want to hurry up and get out of recovery.” She’s proud of her school for performing well enough to transfer back.
Sametta Brown, who runs the school’s charter operator, agrees. “Our board sees this as an earned privilege,” she says. “We have earned the right to go back.”
But what Brown sees as a privilege will soon become a requirement. Because Governor John Bel Edwards just signed legislation that transfers centralized control of all 52 RSD charters to the Orleans Parish School Board. By 2019, at the latest.
It’s a major move that effectively reunites the city’s school system. But it’s not a return to the old system. The 11-page bill contains lots of specific language about how the charter schools will retain their autonomy.
Erika McConduit-Diggs is head of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans and a member of the advisory committee that will oversee reunification. Charter schools, she explains, will maintain “the ability to hire, fire, choose curriculum, set calendars.”
Day-to-day operations are still on each school. “It’s going to continue to be managed on an individual basis by the charter or CMO, the charter management organization,” she says.
The school board will serve as an authorizer – opening and closing schools, ensuring they follow the law. It will also oversee the city’s central enrollment process and central expulsion office. And it will continue to directly run its six traditional schools.
“We will have a system of autonomous schools, under one umbrella,” McConduit-Diggs says.
But some critics of the new law say it doesn’t give the school board enough power. They pushed for an alternate bill. A shorter one, with fewer stipulations about what the school board can and cannot do. That bill died in committee.
And some worry the 2019 deadline is way too soon. They fear the school board isn’t equipped to take on 52 new schools, plus enrollment and expulsion.
And those who see the pre-Katrina school system as failing and corrupt fear that will happen again.
While definitely not a return to the old system, McConduit-Diggs says, she does hope the return can help heal wounds still raw more than a decade after Katrina. The state seized the majority of New Orleans public schools and eventually converted them to charters.
The wholesale layoff of teachers, the influx outside reformers, “all of those things really created that space in terms of community feeling very distanced from what was happening in education,” she says. “So the reunification, I think, starts to bridge that gap.”
As with many decisions involving New Orleans schools, the reunification will be closely watched around the country. Other cities want to see what role a local school board might play in a majority charter school city.
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This story was originally published by WWNO on May 23, 2016.