After Big Gains, New Orleans Sweats the Lesser Problems

Last night at the famous Arnaud’s on Bourbon Street, a lively panel talked about what’s next for New Orleans schools and kids. The room was full of a national group of charter school authorizers, advocates, and funders–a knowledgable and opinionated group.  Moderator John Ayers had his hands full.
The remarkable educational improvement in NOLA–easily the winner of The Most Improved award–over the last five years was glossed over (I profiled New Orleans and the turnaround story in October).  Before Katrina, two thirds of the schools were failing, now it’s down to one third–a meteoric rise to mediocrity.  But that’s still a heck of a disaster recovery tale.
The discussion kicked off the advisory board meeting of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.  NACSA recently launched One Million Lives, a campaign to create quality options for another 1 million students.
Most of the discussion centered around the fact that there’s not really a central office anymore and now that there are so many charter schools, there are lots of questions about special education, admissions, discipline, and facilities–the new lesser problems
Erika McConduit, Urban Leagues, said, “Parents are taking choice seriously.” A recent survey suggests that parents are 40% more likely to access educational options.
However, Andre Perry, Loyola, said “there is a certain sameness to all the schools.” He argued for more diversity in options, particularly in career and technical education.
Perry and McConduit said it was time to do more to engage minority communities and get them more involved in school governance. Perry argued that despite big academic gains, the African American community has seen much in the way of economic gains.
Leslie Jacobs, architect of the Recovery School District (RSD) and a state board member, argued, “There is 50 times more involvement with school governance than there was before Katrina.”  Jacobs and others noted how important the strong state accountability system was to creating the RSD and quality options.
Several audience members recognized Caroline Romer Shirley and the critical support of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools growing building out the charter space and in community engagement.
Now that the city is a portfolio of options, there is growing interest in some level of coordination.  Rationalizing transportation, admissions, and discipline policies is popular with many parents, said McConduit.  But recentralizing anything made the autonomy advocates in the audience nervous.  There was some agreement that it was important to have a portfolio manager that made facilities allocation decisions.
“Unlike before, the new schools really focus on  teacher development,” said Jay Altman from KIPP.
Jacobs is worried about sustainability.  She is urging state leaders to address the overhang of pension liabilities.  She is investigating blended learning as a strategy to boost achievement and improve sustainability.  She believes the keys to NOLA 2.0 include 1) building human capital, 2) rigorous authorizing, and 3) charter infrastructure.
Caroline Romer Shirley asked a big question, “Can school boards reinvent themselves around portfolio?”
A foundation executive asked, “What about the 14,000 kids not served by system?” Jacobs said, “It’s less than before accountability.” It was a good question, the kind you can ask after five years of remarkable progress.

Tom - Speaking Engagements

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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