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Why New Orleans’ school board is against a state Senate bill meant to increase its power

File photo by Aubri Juhasz
A meeting of the Orleans Parish School Board on Aug. 19, 2021.

A state bill meant to increase the Orleans Parish School Board's authority over its own charter schools was opposed by the board during a special meeting Tuesday.

Board president Olin Parker said the board’s opposition shouldn’t be seen as a guaranteed preference for the status quo, but rather an unwillingness to be cut out of the legislative process.

While the bill’s author, state Sen. Joseph Bouie (D-New Orleans), informed the board that he was working on new legislation, Parker said he did not share the text of the bill with the board before filing it.

“That is not collaboration. That is dictation,” Parker said, adding that the board has shown an extreme willingness to work with elected officials, including Bouie.

What the bill says

Senate Bill 404 was introduced in late March and referred to the state’s Committee on Education, but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

The bill would significantly shift the balance of power in the district by allowing New Orleans’ school board to decide which aspects of day-to-day operations individual charter operators control.

Bouie is listed as the bill’s primary author along with ten co-authors, which he said represents 80% of New Orleans’ legislative delegation.

“We offered the bill as a means by which we can save our public school system, our children and our community,” Bouie said at Tuesday’s special board meeting, which was called specifically to discuss SB 404.

The bill as written significantly amends Act 91, the document that delineates power between New Orleans’ school board and its independent charter operators.

Charter operators currently have autonomy in many areas, including curriculum, employment, teacher certification and salaries and benefits, unless otherwise agreed to in their contract.

Under Bouie’s bill, charter operators would no longer be guaranteed autonomy in these areas. Instead, it would be up to the board to decide which of these aspects each individual charter has control over.

New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that works closely with the city’s charter schools, publicly requested that the board oppose SB 404 during a board meeting earlier this month, arguing the bill could be used to completely eliminate charter school autonomy.

“When we talk about a charter school, it's that autonomy plus accountability that make them very special and that balance,” said Holly Reid, NSNO’s chief of policy and portfolio.

Reid said the areas New Orleans charters don’t have autonomy over include enrollment, transportation and expulsions.

Bouie’s rationale

At Tuesday’s meeting, and in a letter last year, Bouie repeatedly referred to the city’s all-charter system as a failed experiment and cited a Stanford University study from 2015 and a report from the state’s legislative auditor last year as evidence.

The purpose of the audit, which Bouie requested, was to determine whether the district and the state analyze the academic outcomes of New Orleans’ charter schools and identify best practices.

While the district and state use standardized test scores to analyze academic outcomes, they do not consider whether specific practices are responsible, according to the audit, which concluded that both entities were still in compliance with state laws.

The Stanford study found that New Orleans public schools were “highly stratified by race, class and educational advantage” after Katrina, and as a result, reforms have failed to benefit all students evenly.

Parker said in an interview after the meeting that he thinks the study highlighted by Bouie provides an inaccurate assessment of what’s happening in New Orleans by relying on limited data and flawed sampling.

Instead, he pointed to a more recent study by a different group of researchers at Stanford that found New Orleans’ public school students posted stronger math and reading growth over the course of three years compared to the state average.

He also referenced the large body of research conducted by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans as more evidence that the city's current system is working.

“Frankly, I don’t give a hoot which mode of school we use as long as it’s improving outcomes for kids,” he said.

What the board’s resolution says

The board’s resolution, which passed 4-1, asks the Senate Education Committee to defer voting on SB 404 until “all interested parties” have been included in the discussion and “potential unintended consequences” of the bill have been fully examined.

Board members Ethan Ashley and J.C. Wagner Romero were absent from Tuesday's meeting.

Parker said one consequence could be the creation of a system where charters have varying levels of autonomy, resulting in further disparities across the district.

His other concern is that operators unhappy with the new arrangement could leave the district and apply for a charter with the state instead, taking funding and students with them. There are currently six New Orleans public schools that are chartered through the state.

Nolan Marshall, the only board member who voted against the resolution, said he supports the bill even though he disagrees with Bouie’s decision not to work with the board directly.

“I am in favor of giving the board back its authority. No question about it,” he said.

How members of the public feel

Tuesday’s special board meeting drew a large audience, and more than 30 people spoke during the public comment period, almost all in support of SB 404.

“If you vote to not do your job, resign immediately,” said Alicia Plummer, a former New Orleans City Council candidate, whose statement was echoed by many.

Brooke Grant, a professor of education at Tulane University who has three children who attend the city’s charter schools, said the board has an obligation to parents to increase its power.

“We as parents have no input into the people that set educational policies for our kids,” she said. “But the people we elect are you, so it’s you all who should be setting policies for our kids.”

Some speakers and members of the audience grew increasingly hostile during the discussion, interrupting the meeting repeatedly and even threatening the board with physical violence. A few people were eventually removed by security.

Dana Peterson, the new CEO of New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), spoke in support of the board’s resolution, as well as Sarah Vandergriff Kelley with the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

“I know the charter board leaders are afraid of the decisions [this board and future boards could take],” said board member Marshall. “But I don’t think anybody should be afraid.”

He said the sooner the debate over the district’s power structure is settled, the better.

“We need to put this to rest once and for all and begin to collaborate on the things we need to do for children,” he said. “There is nothing to fear in us controlling our own future.”

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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