In The News › What should local control of schools look like?

What should local control of schools look like?

By Jarvis DeBerry, The Times-Picayune
September 28, 2012

You’d think that New Orleans is where the tea party could really raise a ruckus. After all, the tea-dumping sabotage that gave the current group its name was animated by the philosophy: “No taxation without representation,” and since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians have paid their taxes while being denied a chance at self governance that other communities take for granted.

Here the popularly elected Orleans Parish School Board controls precious few of the city’s schools. That’s been the reality since Hurricane Katrina more than seven years now. How much longer will it be so?

Last year about eight schools that were taken over by the Recovery School District met the academic benchmarks that make them eligible for a return to School Board control, and one local school official expects that a total of 14 will be eligible after school performance scores are released in October. The School Board can’t take back schools that don’t want to come back. And even if the board and a school express a mutual like for one another, the return still must be approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

As for the School Board itself, what should it look like? Deirde Burel, executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network, noted in a recent interview that the board currently has seven district members, but that’s not set in stone. State law allows the board to reshape and reconfigure itself as its members see fit. The School Board can have as few as five members or as many as nine. It can have any mixture of district and at-large seats that its members deem appropriate. Those running for this fall’s election to the School Board might not know such shape-shifting is within their power, but it is, and it’s important that it’s acknowledged as we imagine our future educational landscape.

Various groups — the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, the Bureau of Governmental Research, the Cowen Institute, a group called Educate Now! and former board president Torin Sanders — have proposed local governance models, but Burel says OPEN is neutral on which model is best.

What her group is adamant about, Burel says, is that there be one major conversation about local governance so that a well-informed public can figure out how we should proceed. OPEN is hosting four forums next month to provide the public an opportunity to discuss its preferences for school governance.

There are no “best practices,” as OPEN made clear at a recent presentation to the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. New Orleans is in an unprecedented situation: “There are no exactly comparable models to New Orleans because of its unique high concentration of charter schools.” Because we are on uncharted ground here, OPEN argues: “We have the opportunity to re-envision, re-imagine governance and its support of public education.”

In that presentation OPEN cited polls and its community interactions to conclude that New Orleanians want to take their schools back. If so, they’ve been uncharacteristically shy in expressing that opinion. Most folks are likely ambivalent: humiliated that they’ve been denied direct democracy in public education yet embarrassed at what past exercises in democracy brought us: School Board members who were equal parts incompetent, corrupt and complacent.

To paraphrase a certain Republican talking point, democracy is a guarantee of opportunity, not of outcomes. We’ve had some stinkers on past boards and are likely to have some stinkers in the future. However, it if representative government is a concept we cherish, it’s hard to make the argument that the current set-up is respectful. But if you think you can, be sure to attend OPEN’s forums next month and let your voice be heard.
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Jarvis DeBerry can be reached at jdeberry@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3355. Follow him at http://connect.nola.com/user/jdeberry/index.html and at twitter.com/jarvisdeberrytp.

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