It’s no secret KIPP New Orleans Schools enrolls a significant portion of the city’s public school students. The charter school network currently manages seven schools at eight campuses. And with the addition of John F. Kennedy High School next summer, KIPP is poised to enroll nearly 14 percent of NOLA Public Schools students, just below the district’s enrollment cap.

NOLA Public Schools district policy prohibits a single charter operator from enrolling more than 15 percent of kindergarten through 12th grade students under the jurisdiction of the Orleans Parish School Board — a market control mechanism in an all-charter city. 

The largest three charter operators — KIPP, InspireNOLA Charter Schools and FirstLine Schools — enrolled 29 percent of K-12 students under OPSB’s jurisdiction last school year. There are nearly 40 nonprofits operating OPSB charter schools. 

KIPP New Orleans, the local arm of the national charter school nonprofit group, is the biggest of all of them. It’s about to add hundreds of Kennedy students, and it’s doing that without having had to apply for a new charter to run the school. KIPP is one of several operators who have been given preapproved, but unassigned, charter contracts that can be used any time a school site becomes available. 

“We called them ‘charters on the shelf,’ ” former Recover School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard said in a phone interview. 

He said he helped designed the “shelf” charter process for the state-run RSD, which ran most of the schools in the city after Hurricane Katrina until last year, when RSD schools were given back to the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board and its administrative staff at the NOLA Public Schools district. 

Unlike Dobard, the district doesn’t have a name for these pre-authorized charter contracts, but it has adopted them. 

We called them ‘charters on the shelf.’

Former RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard

As of late August, KIPP had four of these “shelf” charters available. InspireNOLA — the district’s second largest operator, enrolling about 10 percent of OPSB students last year — had one. FirstLine also had one available.

According to state data, KIPP enrolled roughly 5,000 K-12 students last year. That was the highest enrollment of any city charter group and equated to about 11.2 percent of 43,943 K-12 students in OPSB schools last year. (Not included in the total student count are seven “Type 2” charter schools in the city that are overseen by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, not OPSB.)

According to a mid-September update from the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, which is running Kennedy for a final year, the Gentilly high school enrolls 621 students. Since last year’s enrollment counts, KIPP has also added a senior class at Booker T. Washington High School, which has grown a grade each year since opening in 2016. 

That means that by next year, KIPP could enroll between 5,500 and 6,000 students. NOLA Public Schools projects KIPP will enroll 13.7 percent of its students at that point. 

“In any year during which KIPP (or another operator) is in danger of exceeding the enrollment cap we would take steps to ensure compliance with the policy,” wrote Tania Dall, a NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman, in an email attributed to the district. 

The announcement last month that KIPP would take over Kennedy came in the midst of an ongoing scandal over New Beginnings’ management. After one ex-employee went public with allegations of improper grade-fixing, a contractor working for the network found pervasive irregularities in students’ records. Half the 2019 senior class did not graduate on time, a result of what one New Beginnings official called employee “malfeasance” and “lack of care.” 

As more problems were uncovered at Kennedy this summer, KIPP leaders discussed adding both a high school and elementary school to the network. In July, New Beginnings voted to surrender the charters for Kennedy and Pierre A. Capdau Charter School — its elementary school — at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Shortly afterwards, KIPP was chosen to run Kennedy. No new operator has been announced for the elementary charter. 

A 15 percent limit

Doug Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, said the district’s school operator enrollment cap — 15 percent — is “not a scientific number.” But having a cap is meant to ensure New Orleans parents have options in a choice-based school system while protecting the district in the event a charter group collapsed. 

“Let’s say you let one CMO get to 40 percent of the market and then the CMO collapsed,” Harris said in an interview. “Then you’re in trouble because the rest of the system can’t make up” for it immediately. 

Still, a cap on enrollment is all a matter of balancing priorities, Harris said, because large charter management organizations have certain advantages.

“If you have larger CMOs it can be a little less expensive,” Harris said, noting they enjoy economies of scale because they contract for services in larger volumes. And because they have a central office that can perform administrative functions for several schools, they spend a lower percentage of their costs on administration

“A second advantage is you might have one CMO that’s really good and you don’t want to stop them from expanding,” Harris said. 

Let’s say you let one CMO get to 40 percent of the market and then the CMO collapsed. Then you’re in trouble because the rest of the system can’t make up.

Doug Harris, Education Research Alliance for New Orleans

But, he said, there are also drawbacks in allowing one group to control a large percentage of citywide enrollment. 

“The counter-argument is one, you want to have a variety of options and competition,” Harris said. That’s what the district’s written policy says. The cap exists, it says, “in order to ensure that a diverse system of schools led by multiple high quality operators exists at all times.”

Another potential problem is that a dominant charter group could have too much influence over the Orleans Parish School Board. 

“One dominant player can have indirect control over board decisions and things that you don’t necessarily want,” Harris said. 

Even with an expanded Booker T. Washington and the soon-to-be-added Kennedy, both KIPP and the district say KIPP is not projected to exceed 15 percent this year or next. But if it did, the policy provides a rather simple remedy: Two-thirds of the school board must vote to change the limit. The district superintendent may also suspend the limit — for one year — “when it is determined that emergency or exigent conditions exist which necessitate the creation of additional capacity in the system.” 

The question is how big the district and the Orleans Parish School Board will allow a single network to become. 

KIPP New Orleans spokesman Curtis Elmore said the network will serve as many students as it can.  

“If there is an opportunity to serve additional students who need a quality school and we have capacity, we will consider it,” Elmore said in an email. 

“As we have said before, we know there is a great need for an excellent operator to work with JFKHS and we are grateful for the recommendation of the NOLA Public Schools’ Superintendent to fulfill this need for those students and families,” Elmore said. “We stand confident in our ability to create a safe and stable learning environment for the 2020-21 school year.”

Elmore said that KIPP will “adhere to all policies and laws set forth.”

If there is an opportunity to serve additional students who need a quality school and we have capacity, we will consider it.

Curtis Elmore, KIPP New Orleans Schools

In an interview, Orleans Parish School Board member Leslie Ellison said she hasn’t given much thought to the cap because no operator has reached it.

“We’re not there yet,” Ellison said, noting that NOLA Public Schools district officials could come to the board and ask to change the cap should they project an operator to go over. 

“It also depends on what’s happening in the city,” Ellison said, noting that different circumstances could warrant lifting the limit or sticking to it. 

Siting

When NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. told the public that KIPP would take over struggling Kennedy next summer, it may have gone quietly unnoticed that the Orleans Parish School Board was powerless in that moment. 

When Lewis recommends a nonprofit be approved for a charter, the seven-member elected board can override him in a public meeting, with an opportunity for public input. But KIPP already had a charter. It just didn’t have a school for that charter. This was merely a “siting” decision, over which the board has no authority. 

“The broader community probably doesn’t have a great handle on that,” Harris said. “The siting decision is more behind the scenes.”

Board member Woody Koppel and Ellison think the shelf charter system works for the community. They said they did not think it cuts the public out of the process. 

“This is really set up legislatively,” Ellison said, noting she thinks the system did a good job involving stakeholders at Kennedy.

“The community was involved. The Kennedy alumni was involved,” she said. KIPP met with Kennedy alumni, staff, parents and students, and “they actually made the selection, even though it was an informal selection.”

Koppel said he hopes to see more shelf charters granted, noting he’d especially like to see high-performing schools, including those run by smaller operators, expanding and ready to open or take over another school. 

“Getting to that is a very difficult point,” he said.

But he said that may not happen because it would require small charter operators to stretch beyond their limits. In recent years, B-rated Audubon Charter School and A-rated Hynes Charter School have opened second schools. 

“In a perfect world I’d like Ben Franklin High School to expand and operate a second school,” he said. 

Like Harris, Koppel said the 15 percent operator limit is somewhat arbitrary. He said it shouldn’t keep an organization that has the means to serve more students from expanding. 

The district asked all charter groups with a preapproved high school charter if they were interested in running Kennedy starting in the 2020-2021 school year. KIPP was the only group that expressed interest, district officials said this summer. 

‘Charters on the shelf’

As of late August, in Orleans Parish there are 14 unused charter contracts, like the one KIPP will use to take over Kennedy. Some are specifically designated for opening new schools, others are approved for taking over closed charter schools. If a nonprofit group doesn’t open in its first year, it can request an extension to hold onto the charter. 

In Kennedy’s case, Lewis said KIPP was the only group with a current charter that responded to the district’s call for an operator. 

Asked why NOLA Public Schools would grant additional, unused charters to a network that enrolls such a large number of students already, the district responded that “KIPP New Orleans Schools is not currently projected to exceed 15% of system enrollment,” and added that district staff members intends to follow policies on enrollment. 

Former Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard said he was involved in developing the shelf charter process. Beginning in 2012, the start of his last three years leading the RSD, he said he wanted to be more intentional about who had a say in which charter groups opened schools. 

Clearly it gives the superintendent more authority.

Doug Harris, Education Research Alliance for New Orleans

“Prior to that there were often times when school sitings may have been done only talking to schools leaders and a few people from the schools,” he said. “We created a process where we engaged people who were connected to a particular school building.”

Those families or alumni could then meet charter groups and voice their opinion on which group they favored to RSD officials. Dobard had the final word, he said, but the RSD was set up that way. 

“I was always clear that it was my final decision to make,” Dobard said. “My hope was every time there was a decision to make, it was one the community would embrace.”

The Recovery School District was established in 2003 with a clear goal of getting rid of red tape when it came to running, opening and closing schools. In some ways, the current Orleans Parish School Board looks a lot like the RSD. 

The board doesn’t have to take a vote on charter approvals or renewals anymore. NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. makes a recommendation to the board. If after one month the board doesn’t override him with a two-thirds vote, it stands. (That was a result of Act 91, the law that ushered in the return of RSD schools back to NOLA Public Schools’ control in the summer of 2018.) 

That law applies to shelf charters as well as charter applicants applying to run a specific school. And placing an operator with a shelf charter into a building is not subject to a board vote.  

“Clearly it gives the superintendent more authority,” Harris said. “I think that’s the thing that’s absolutely clear.”

“It’s not new, it’s new to OPSB,” Harris said. “All it is is continuing the prior operation of how things were at the RSD.”

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.