The transformation of public education in New Orleans continues. It has been described as a centralized school system reinventing itself as a decentralized system of schools. Since 2007, the Cowen Institute has taken on the task of describing this reinvention. Through our annual State of Public Education in New Orleans report, the Cowen Institute provides a clear narrative of the progression and implementation of this new model. We identify meaningful trends while providing healthy critique and providing pressure for improvement. This year a dedicated website, www.speno2014.com, expands the report into interactive maps and searchable data sets that allow more exploration and clarity.
When the state took over the majority of public schools in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it catalyzed a new era of accountability, an expanded charter landscape, and a multi-layered governance model. To date, no urban area has decentralized and reinvented its public education to the extent that we have, though many are beginning to try.
The landscape of public schools in New Orleans is changing constantly as both the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and the local Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) authorize new charter schools and close low performing schools. As managers of these portfolios of public schools, OPSB and the Recovery School District (RSD) make renewal and closure decisions independent of one another. Community members and parents often struggle to navigate this ever-changing environment.
Unified governance continues to be elusive. There is little desire to return to the system of governance that previously existed. As charter schools under RSD have earned the option of transferring to OPSB, they have all opted to remain with RSD. A unified system of schools with a single central office responsible for serving all students and holding all schools accountable to transparent and equivalent standards is unlikely at this point.
Yet, in lieu of a central office, a multitude of ad hoc systems are organizing and emerging to address the absence of centralized services. These systems have been articulated and formalized in the innovative Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (CEA) between OPSB and RSD. The CEA centralizes processes, similar to traditional centralized sub-structures that we now have in place, such as enrollment and expulsion hearings. It also begins to establish protocols to protect our substantial investment in school facilities and launches cross-district programming and shared funding to serve our city’s most vulnerable students.
This official agreement is an indication of the will of OPSB and RSD to work together in good faith to solve real problems of youth and schools. We find that what was considered a reactive strategy to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is no longer an experimental reform movement. This is public education in New Orleans.
John J. Ayers