Recovery School District, charters embarking on a unique year in spotlight

As public school students settle into the school year, they can’t seem to shake off a bit of inaccurate national attention: The belief that New Orleans has the country’s first all-charter school system.

That’s wrong on two counts. The city still has a handful of traditional public schools, and the array of more than 70 charter schools can hardly be called a system, though that’s beginning to change.

Still, with the larger of the city’s two educational oversight agencies now consisting of only charters, and the other with a majority of charters, few would dispute that traditional schools are almost an afterthought when discussing public education in the city.

This story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, to focus on coverage of New Orleans public schools.

This story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, to focus on coverage of New Orleans public schools.

But there is a continuing debate over which of the two entities should provide broad oversight to the autonomous charters — the state-run Recovery School District or the Orleans Parish School Board, which had to surrender oversight of the failing schools.

New Orleans is far and away the urban center most influenced by charters — so the city’s educational changes have attracted the attention of policymakers nationwide. Indeed, more than 90 percent of the city’s public-school students attended charter schools in 2013-14.

The Lens is partnering with The Hechinger Report on a continuing, in-depth look at this first year in which all schools under control of the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans have become charters, making it a one-of-a-kind district in the country.

The district now is managing relationships with the traditional school board, with the dozens of charter boards overseeing schools and with other authorizing agencies. With varying degrees of success, the different bureaucracies cooperate to dole out campus space, coordinate back-office duties and work together on enrollment and special education services, among other things.

The academic results in the recovery district charters have been remarkably uneven, with some closing because of dismal performance, and other upstarts posting higher scores in some grades than the longtime academic leaders.

As New Orleans approaches the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2015, you’ll see a swell of reporting that takes a hard look at improvements made over the past decade, as well as work still to be done in the city. But you won’t see a 10th anniversary story of the Recovery School District — because it was formed well before the storm, not as a result of it.

The real story of the New Orleans charter conversion

An out-of-state reporter  recently checked a seemingly obvious fact with the head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools: The “recovery” in the Recovery School District’s name refers to coming back from Katrina, right?

Not at all, explained Executive Director Caroline Roemer Shirley, who runs the trade and lobbying group.

A student walks off the bus at John Dibert Community School, one of the many charter schools in New Orleans under the auspices of the Recovery School District.

Marta Jewson / The Lens

A student walks off the bus at John Dibert Community School, one of the many charter schools in New Orleans under the auspices of the Recovery School District.

“It was Katrina, however, that physically wiped out New Orleans infrastructure and governance as it relates to public education,” she said.

The district was formed in 2003 to help failing schools recover academically. And it’s designed to work with schools statewide, not just in New Orleans, though the city was largely the target of the initial legislation. It was a logical step in the state’s accountability program formed in the mid-1990’s. Once you had a system to measure schools and then found them lacking year after year, what would you do with them?

If a school posted failing scores for four consecutive years, the Recovery School District could take it over to bring about improvement.

“If, however, a school improved enough to lose its failing label, the school would revert to school district control,” education reporter Aesha Rasheed wrote in the Times-Picayune in September 2003. (Rasheed left journalism and went on to become the board president of the Morris Jeff Community School, a well-regarded charter.)

Before Hurricane Katrina, the recovery district had taken over five city schools that had been deemed ‘failing.’

Katrina left a significant portion of New Orleans under water, few people and even fewer children in the city, and forced the vast majority of city schools to cancel the 2005-06 school year.

In a special session of the Louisiana Legislature less than two months after the storm, with much of the population still displaced, lawmakers significantly changed the threshold for “failing” and allowed for the takeover of a failing district — a clear response to a school system in crisis that couldn’t even open its doors.

The legislature then voted to place 107 of the 128 public schools in New Orleans under control of the recovery district. Orleans Parish maintained control of the rest, which were higher performing.

One thing that didn’t change after Katrina was the heavy enrollment in private and parochial schools. According a Times-Picayune analysis of state data, even before the storm, in 2002, 22 percent of school-age children attended a non-public school. That’s among the highest in the nation. That figure was 20 percent in 2013.

These schools generally serve a self-selected, financially capable group of parents intent on getting their money’s worth, with some private schools now charging tuition and fees of as much as $20,000. That left the Orleans Parish School Board with an enrollment of relatively low-income parents less able in many cases to assist or participate in their children’s education.

So the creation of the Recovery School District took an already deeply troubled system and cleaved off the worst-performing schools.

Time for the RSD to get out of New Orleans?

The RSD is a special school district that operates under the control of the Louisiana Department of Education Over the past eight years, it has shifted from a centrally controlled system that directly oversaw and governed schools, to one that grants charters to interested groups meeting certain criteria. Those schools have their own boards that operate autonomously and set school curricula and policy. As an authorizer, though, the district still maintains a broad but remote responsibility for the schools. This year, the district moved its last school from direct-run to charter, creating the unique system that invites so much scrutiny.

Accordingly, the RSD has significantly cut its budget and staff. Superintendent Patrick Dobard now oversees the RSD portfolio of charter schools and a much smaller staff that evaluates charters for compliance and renewals.

The recovery district has reduced its operating budget from $394 million in 2008-09 to a projected $47 million this year, according to a recent news report.

If the initial goal of the recovery district was to swoop in, turn around failing schools and hand them back to the publicly elected school board in better shape, it hasn’t gotten there yet. That’s because it’s not up to the recovery district or the school board to decide when charters move back to local control.

A 2010 policy change at the state level allowed charters to decide if they would like to return to local control, instead of requiring the transfer. No eligible charter school’s board of directors has voted to return to the traditional board.

If you ask School Board member Ira Thomas, he thinks it is time for the Recovery School District to hit the road.

“It’s time now, in my opinion, for the Recovery School District to exit the city of New Orleans,” Thomas said.

While the lingering oversight includes keeping a watchful eye on charter’s academic and financial success, it also includes decisions on facilities.

“They are attempting to cement their presence and longevity in this city through managing school buildings,” Thomas said. “That’s the responsibility of the Orleans Parish School Board.”

Indeed, while the Orleans Parish School Board owns the majority of the city’s public school property, the recovery district took over operation of the properties when schools were turned over. In addition to that, the district and the board are jointly overseeing billions — with a B — of FEMA dollars that are repairing schools.

“The Recovery School District has exhausted its academic purpose in the City of New Orleans,” Thomas said.

The local school board fought to regain oversight of the recovery charters — actually making a legal bid to attempt to regain control of recovery schools no longer considered failing. But the district lost its case. And the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear the district’s appeal earlier this year.

Thomas said legislation originally spelled out a return process after five years of successful scores. But that 2010 policy change lets charter schools make the decision for themselves.

Shirley, of the state charter school association, said whether the recovery district was created with a spirit of permanency is up for debate.

The district may continue to be a parallel operation to the Orleans Parish School Board for a while, she suggests, and she’s got no problem with that.

Given the choice, no school wants to return to a district that can’t select a superintendent after more than two years, or to a district that has grueling, contentious board meetings.

“Until they get their politics straight nobody’s going back,” she said.

Shirley said the return of schools to local control should not be about the successful turnaround of the once-failing school — but the condition of the entity that initially failed it.

“What have they done that would make us feel more comfortable that they’ve made adjustments?” Shirley asked of the public school system’s central office.

“I think (the fact that no school has returned) falls directly to the feet of current leadership of the Orleans Parish School Board and their failure to demonstrate at any level assurance and ability to oversee the RSD portfolio,” Shirley said.

Many charters argue they want to retain their autonomy, ability to directly accept federal dollars directly and spend them as they see fit, and not pay for a central office overhead, and therefore stay with the recovery district.

Thomas says the school board worked to pass legislation that allows charter schools to maintain that autonomy by keeping their status as a local education agency if they were to return to local oversight.

In regards to the lack of a permanent superintendent Thomas said, “That is totally inconsequential to the return of charters.”

He said Orleans Parish charters have operated just fine despite having an interim superintendent at the helm for more than two years.

Thomas says to his knowledge the School Board is not pursuing any of the charters that to this point have been uninterested in returning to local control. He said the School Board has addressed the issues charters raised.

He said he believes it is time for the state school board “to require those schools to return to the auspices of the local school board.”

Thomas noted taking on eligible recovery charter schools could mean schools with a “C” letter grade from the state, which means they are operating at lower level academically than the current Orleans Parish schools.

“The Orleans Parish School Board would be taking on [an academic] liability,” Thomas said.

“We did reach out to them and did what we thought they needed to have secured for them,” Thomas said, addressing the issue of autonomy.

“Outside of that I don’t know what other issues are lingering.”

As the year unfolds hopeful charter operators will apply to run schools, others may learn they have to shut down, and some may be taken over or absorbed by larger charter networks.

The 2014-15 school year is already another year of firsts, but that’s normal around here.

This story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, to focus on coverage of New Orleans public schools.

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  • jazz_nola

    It will interesting to see your series of article over the coming months with the The Hechinger Report. I think you’re on point regarding questions around the success or viability of the Recovery School District.

    I also think moving forward you explore and bring clarity to several points regarding ACT 35 and the Recovery School District:

    ACT 35 held public schools in New Orleans to a much higher standard then any school district in the state at the time it was passed (November 29, 2005) to date. Every public school below the “state average” in New Orleans was taken over, it should be noted that the state has not held any other school district to such a standard. It should be noted that 30 schools were taken over which had a SPS score that was over 60 (state standard at the time of Hurricane Katrina). To date the Recovery School District has chartered all of its schools and may have 4 schools about the state average while most their schools are rated either “D’ or “F’, they have certainly not met the challenge or promises they made in 2005.

    It also should be noted that the Recovery School District has had 4 superintendents in 9 years, so much for stable leadership. Additionally the Recovery School District has received numerous scathing reports form Louisiana Legislative Auditor since 2008. These findings have uncovered gross fiscal mismanagement, violations of state and federal polices. For the last 6 years these damaging reports from the Legislative Auditor is an annual if not semi annual occurrence.

    I hope that you lay report on all aspects of the market model education reforms state education has embraced for the city of New Orleans.

  • nickelndime

    Aesha Rasheed “left journalism” to serve on the non-profit board of Morris Jeff Community School. I give up – what DOES she do for money? Are you ~#^*++ kidding me, or what! Is she like Michael Pizzolatto of the Plessey Community Charter School, formerly of the French Market Corporation, who resigned to serve on that board? You guys is killing me!

  • will_k2

    Ira Thomas is really amusing. Rather than seeing across-the-board refusal of Charters to have anything to do with his organization as something that he might have some accountability for, he just wants the state to FORCE them back. Pretty clear that what he really wants is to increase the size of $ under his control so that he can single-source DBE contracts to friends & family. Thanks but no thanks, Ira.

  • nickelndime

    Why would eligible schools return to local OPSB control when the buildings in which they are housed “belong” to the RSD? Yes, I said BELONG! Thanks to Louisiana law, BESE, former State Superintendent Pastorek, Leslie Jacobs, and non-profit founders like Sarah Usdin (sitting OPSB member), the RSD is ensuring its longevity well into 2025 through the SCHOOL BUILDINGS. There is 1.8 billion dollars of federal money in the pipeline for school building construction in Orleans Parish. The RSD is not about to let go of school campuses. Why should it? The RSD answers to no one – not the governor, not BESE (it should, but it doesn’t), not the State Superintendent of Education, and certainly not the people of Louisiana. Another great legislative feat – or another headache – as usual in Louisiana? And it is no longer one school and one non-profit charter board. The RSD has systematically placed multiple school campuses into the hands of selected charter operators (KIPP, Choice Foundation, ReNEW, FirstLine Schools, etc.) which are getting state and federal funds to “stay” with the state (RSD). This is as anti-local as one can get, and it makes it practically impossible for one “school” campus (among three or four under the same charter operator) to return to the OPSB.

  • will_k2

    Wow, think of how much we could learn if only the leaders of those schools could speak for themselves on why they choose not to go back. Oh, wait, they have – nickel just ignores it because their actual reasons don’t fit his/her tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories.

  • nickelndime

    Two notable closures by the RSD are John Mac and Sarah T. Reed High School. Both were failures – academically and financially – under RSD control. When the RSD closes (shuts down) a school, campus, or program, the campus should go back to local district control, from whence it came because the RSD failed. The tail (RSD) wags the dog (local school board control) regularly in Louisiana. Hell, even the governor changed his mind from 2010 with a MOU to now regarding CC and PARCC – for whatever reason except the right one. Now Jindal is destroying public records and paying Alvarez & Marsal (remember them and the OPSB?). This is corruption of Louisiana law and it should be changed by these idiotic lawmakers (legislators) because it will not succeed in the courts any more than the LFT was successful in challenging what the lawmakers did to teacher tenure. **This is an aside to “will”: As far as the CEO leaders of RSD schools speaking out, they are not allowed to speak out. They are advised so by their CMOs and the boards and expensive legal counsel. That is exactly why the CMOs employ spokespersons and the RSD has its own Public Affairs Department and spokesperson. But I believe Zoey Reed was demoted from the RSD to a CMO – just before the Tulane Cowen Institute retraction (big boo boo).

  • R.Rubes

    I am a Tulane and teachNOLA alum now at law school studying education rights. I am eager to follow your reporting and wonder how the charter landscape really compares to pre-katrina schools. Are families happier? Is education more equal? From what I can tell charter schools are only further stratifying the quality of education wealthy versus poorer families receive in Orleans Parish. Please be sure to report on the lack of transparency in these schools- some have no website, some have debate teams and computer clubs while others don’t even offer P.E. or languages, and how little parents and students are informed of these discrepancies. Also note how little choice parents (especially lower income) ACTUALLY are able to exercise in this new model.

  • R.Rubes

    “Orleans Parish charters have operated just fine despite having an interim superintendent at the helm for more than two years”. Have they….?