Today, Mitch Landrieu unveiled another task force to advise his transition, this time on public education.
I feel like I’ve been reminded 1,000 times that the city of New Orleans HAS NO CONTROL over education policy. Library Chronicles reminded me of it today, as a matter of fact.
Even though I think Jeffrey was being somewhat facetious, the mayor can do some pretty important things with education as a leader and as an advocate, even if the city does not and will not regularly contribute any money to the public school system.
The charter movement in New Orleans has been widely lauded as a success even though it is beginning to lose the shimmer from its armor as studies show limited improvement in many cases. (I’m very interested to read former charter-booster Diane Ravitch’s change of heart.)
I used to write often about education policy and the move away from traditional public schools, but I stopped as I became disillusioned and confused about the application of school reform. The brutal way in which teachers were fired after Katrina and schools were taken over by the state was impeding my ability to evaluate a way forward from the new starting point.
I’m still not quite sure what to conclude about New Orleans schools. As wonderful as it is to see so many resources and energy applied to public education, I don’t think the current governance structure (near-total decentralization managed by a state agency with no local oversight), nor the current reliance on teachers expected to work 70 hours a week are anywhere close to representing a sustainable education system. .
That said, there should be some areas around which Landrieu can build consensus and some ideas for which he can use his rhetorical gifts to advocate.
1. Federal funding for school construction
Though I had my reservations about the school facilities master plan passed in 2007, I now want nothing more than to see that plan accelerated. When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was being negotiated in early 2008, the Recovery School District stood to receive a windfall that would have moved up the timeline on many of the city’s school renovation and restoration projects. Unfortunately, when tens millions of dollars were stripped out of the stimulus bill in the Senate to win the vote of Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the RSD lost out big, since it has such a backlog of shovel-ready projects that almost certainly would have been awarded money.
Landrieu has no control over school construction, but he could be an ambassador for school construction funding at the federal level.
2. Create a charter school oversight body within the Office of Inspector General or the mayor’s office.
While the debate over whether charter schools are a worthwhile long-term solution will doubtlessly continue, all education advocates should agree that the multi-tentacled governance structure of the New Orleans public school and charter school systems do not allow for independent oversight. As you might recall, the business manager of Langston Hughes Academy, a stand-alone charter school, recently pleaded guilty to stealing $660,000 from her school’s budget. That should never, ever happen, especially given that corruption and waste were among the main factors behind the dismantling of the traditional public school system.
Landrieu has no control over school budgets, but he should appropriate city funding and seek a state match to establish an oversight board or office to investigate complaints, and monitor the financial books of charter schools operating within Orleans Parish.
3. Encourage the RSD, OPSB, and charter associations to mandate an African American studies or a cultural studies course be added to all senior year curricula.
Maybe the coolest thing Paul Vallas did in Philly, when he was schools superintendent there, was to introduce this kind of course to all graduating seniors. Though the effort may have been poorly branded in ways that ruffled the feathers of some of Philadelphia’s diverse ethnic communities, a cultural studies course, especially one that focuses on local traditions, could be an important forum for great discussion and a real source of pride. The class was implemented after I graduated from high school but my kid sister absolutely loved it. I certainly have fond memories of individual teachers’ emphasis of African American literature and history throughout the school year. I think we spent a full two months in eighth grade English class on the literature and history of the Harlem Renaissance – it was awesome.
Mitch Landrieu has no control over the school curriculum but he should be an advocate for courses that reflect the cultural unity he has pledged to fight for.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of recommendations but that’s what my comments section – and presumably Mitch Landrieu’s education task force – is for.