Constitutional change made New Orleans educational transformation possible

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New Orleans. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The recovery and improvement of public education in New Orleans is now a well-known story.

In late November of 2005, the state-created Recovery School District took over most of the city’s storm-ravaged schools and created a nearly all-charter system that has achieved eye-popping results and set off debates that still simmer 10 years later.

The transformation might never have happened if it weren’t for an earlier change that seems all but forgotten, at least among national observers. Two years before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, a bipartisan coalition championed an amendment to the state constitution, winning support from voters and laying the groundwork for the creation of a new kind of school district.

Does that crucial step — largely missing in discussions whether other places can follow New Orleans’ lead — hold lessons for other places?

In 2003, Louisiana voters approved Amendment 4, with 60 percent in favor and 40 percent against, giving the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) the ability to take over struggling public schools, mostly in the Orleans Parish School District.

Education reform critics often argue the takeover of Orleans Parish schools after the storm was undemocratic and driven by profit motive. While there are legitimate debates to be had about community decision-making, that narrative tends to ignore the level of support the takeover law received from voters and the state Legislature. It also trivializes the profound dysfunction of Orleans Parish public schools, which helped galvanize public support for the change.

When supporters began pushing to amend the constitution, the Orleans Parish School District was a basket case of dysfunction. In 2003, The Advocate‘s editorial board described the district as “a managerial and educational nightmare.”

State assessments implemented just a few years earlier exposed the failings of the district. Bridget Green, a high school valedictorian who failed the graduation exam five times, became a poster child for a system that robbed children of an education.

The district also suffered a laundry list of financial blunders, nepotism and corruption scandals – including a $3.4 million theft of musical instruments, furniture and computer equipment. The full extent of the corruption wouldn’t be uncovered until just months before Katrina struck.

“Everyone was getting as much as they could for themselves while the schools were falling apart,” Peter Cook, an education consultant and former public school teacher in New Orleans, said in an interview. Reform became more difficult as privileged families insulated themselves from the turmoil by enrolling their children in private or selective-admissions public schools.

The Orleans Parish School Board controlled the Minimum Foundation Program money and local support funding. That, along with the authority to negotiate labor agreements and other local contracts, gave officials in the problem-plagued district leverage to resist change. When the University of New Orleans (UNO) offered to take over struggling public schools, the district refused to budge on union contracts, and negotiations stalled.

Fed up with the district’s recalcitrance and dysfunction, a bipartisan coalition — including Gov. Murphy Foster, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, state schools Superintendent Cecil Picard and state board members like Leslie Jacobs — looked for ways to wrest control of the state’s most profoundly struggling schools from the district’s mismanagement.

Louisiana law allowed the state board to shut down low-performing public schools, but prevented the state board from operating individual schools.

Jacobs wanted to give her fellow board members a method to turn around, rather than close, the state’s most severely struggling schools, most of which were concentrated in New Orleans.

“We modeled it after U.S. bankruptcy law,” she said in an interview.

Under the proposal, the state board would steer funding to the newly created Recovery School District. The state-backed district would be free to abandon the existing central office and old contracts.  It would have the authority to take over individual schools and manage those schools as a decentralized system of public charters.

Leslie Jacobs. Source: New Orleans City Council.

A constitutional amendment would be needed to let the new district control funding for schools it took over.

Amending the constitution required the approval of the state legislature, the governor and finally, a direct vote of the people. The proposed amendment read:

To authorize the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to supervise, manage, and operate any public elementary or secondary school determined to be failing or to provide for others to do so; to authorize the state board to receive, control, and expend state minimum foundation program money and local money contributed pursuant to the minimum foundation program or otherwise in amounts calculated based on the number of students in attendance in such a school, all in the manner and in accordance with law.

“There must be a change,” Rep. Karen Carter (D-New Orleans) told the Times-Picayune as the state House approved the proposal in April 2003. “What we have now we know does not work.”

The amendment passed with strong bi-partisan support, receiving a 31-6 vote in the Senate and 82-13 vote in the House.

Voters then approved the change, making way for a law that allowed BESE to take over schools labeled “academically unacceptable” for four consecutive years. At the time, twenty-one of twenty-three such schools were in New Orleans.

BESE moved to takeover 14 of the schools in New Orleans, requesting proposals from non-profit charter organizations. Critics on the school board resisted.

“I told you that was going to happen, which is why I was against Amendment 4: Because they didn’t have a plan. They’re just going to privatize it,” Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms said, according to the Times-Picayune.

Brooks-Simms was later sentenced to 18 months prison for accepting $140,000 in bribes in exchange for approving a private software contract worth millions of dollars.

Pierre A. Capdau Junior High became the first school taken over by a charter agency, the University of New Orleans, in the 2004-05 school year. Another four schools were approved as charters for the fateful 2005-06 school year. Then Katrina struck.

New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The tax base was wiped out. Schools were destroyed. Some neighborhoods were decimated. Traditional school assignments were no longer possible. “A pure choice district was needed because people were moving across the city as it was being rebuilt,” Jacobs said. “They needed to find a school no matter where they lived.”

Gov. Kathleen Blanco called a special session to change the law again, this time requiring BESE to take over any school in a large district that ranked below average on state assessments. Of those schools, Jacobs said, “two-thirds were truly failing.”

“We see an opportunity here to just do something that is incredible,” Gov. Blanco said during a bill-signing ceremony, according to the Times-Picayune

That change passed 89-14 in the state House and 33-4 in the Senate, effectively handing over 102 New Orleans public schools to BESE.

In the spring of 2006, the state board received 44 applications from charter school groups looking to take over shuttered public schools in New Orleans. Only six were approved.

“Succeed slowly, or fail fast,” Jacobs said. She and others believed the state had to select only the best applications. For the Recovery School District to survive long-term, it would need public support. Its schools would need to be well-run.

When schools opened the following year the district had shrunk by 75 percent. BESE opened 18 schools as charters in 2006 while the Orleans Parish district opened four schools of its own. Today there are about 46,000 students in the district, the vast majority in charters. The system erected in the wake of devastation seems to be getting academic results that are all but unheard-of in the world of education reform.

Jacobs says the work to improve struggling schools isn’t done. Disputes over whether to centralize or decentralize busing and whether the charter schools should be returned to the control of the Orleans Parish School District still linger. There is also the ever-present battle to maintain the balance between charter school autonomy and appropriate regulations.

Louisiana’s state constitution allowed a failing and corrupt school district to withstand reform for decades. While few school systems are likely to match the dysfunction of New Orleans before the storm, the efforts there might hold an important lesson that can be applied elsewhere, as outdated constitutional provisions remain a barrier to charter schools and deeper systemic reforms.

Editors Note:

This article was informed by, and made reference to, the following archived newspaper sources:

“School takeover plan approved in House,” Times-Picayune, April 30, 2003
“Failing schools need  makeover,” The Advocate, September 14, 2003
“BESE begins to pave way for takeovers,” Times-Picayune, January 14, 2004
“Payroll clerk gets 2 years in prison” Times-Picayune, Dec. 15, 2004. “New corruption charges expected” Times-Picayune, Dec. 16, 2004
“School system holds worker roll call; Firm trying to combat costly payroll errors,” Times-Picayune, August 16, 2005
“Orleans School Takeover is Official,” Times-Picayune, Dec. 1, 2005

Hat-tip to Peter Cook for supplying extensive background information and sources, including several linked in this article.