By Amy Auletto
New Orleans has been in the spotlight for a number of years due its decentralized portfolio school district model. The Recovery School District (RSD), a statewide school district created in 2003, was designed to intervene in low-performing schools in New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, a large number of schools came under the control of the RSD. These schools had previously been governed by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), New Orleans’ local school district.
Currently, about 70% of students attend RSD schools (all of which are charter schools) and the remaining 30% attend OPSB schools (most of which are charter schools). Between the RSD and OPSB, over 90% of students in New Orleans are enrolled in charter schools. These two systems, however, will soon be operating as one unified district. By 2018, RSD schools in New Orleans will move back under the local control of the OPSB.
Senate Bill (SB) 432
On April 20, Louisiana’s State Senate unanimously adopted Senate Bill 432. The bill moved to the Louisiana House where it was passed on May 5 by a margin of 55-16. SB 432 will move 52 RSD charter schools back into the OPSB while still allowing them the benefits of charter school autonomy. RSD charter schools will still have authority over personnel decisions, collective bargaining, school calendars, curriculum, and other operational decisions. The local OPSB school board will not interfere with the governance of these schools. Under this new legislation, all schools currently in the OPSB and the RSD will participate together in a common enrollment system, with some priority given based on geographic location and demographics.
What This Means for New Orleans
While the RSD and OPSB have been operating in cooperation for years, this transition is significant. One local journalist described the passing of SB 432 as “symbolically healing a wound torn open after the hurricane.” The RSD intervened at a time when New Orleans was in crisis and has spurred the creation of a number of schooling options that were not available before Hurricane Katrina. Despite the academic gains touted by the RSD, the impact of this state-run school district has not been entirely positive.
The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) has pointed out some less than desirable consequences of the RSD. Fewer African American teachers are now employed in the city and the teaching workforce is overall less experienced. RSD charter schools use selective recruitment techniques that disadvantage low-performing students. Low-income families don’t have as many choices available to them as more affluent families due to geographic constraints and other needs.
This upcoming shift back to a unified school district marks a return to local control. There is certainly the possibility of conflict as these two entities merge and it will be several years before the results of this transition are entirely clear. However, regardless of how this transition plays out, the RSD was never meant to be a permanent governance structure, but rather a temporary intervention for struggling schools. Given the questionable impacts of the RSD identified by the NEPC and the many years that New Orleans has gone without local voice, SB 432 marks the beginning of a significant transition for the city.
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