Forcing bad government on good schools / by Christopher Stewart

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There is a move in Louisiana to force independent schools back under the rule of the Orleans Parish School Board. My sparring partner Andre Perry has a piece this morning in Hechinger that is supportive of the proposal. He believes "takeover districts," those where state entities take ownership of chronically failing schools, lack a strategy for returning the schools once they are no longer failing.

I can agree with him on one thing: there is no future for education in New Orleans without democratic control of the public schools. While a lot of effort has gone in to building a new system of schools, there hasn't been an equal effort to enfranchise New Orleanians and rebuild democracy.

Still, I think Perry is practicing an extreme brand of optimism - and not an insignificant amount of revisionism - when he says "New Orleans Parish School Board has an impressive pre- and post-storm history of letting autonomous schools draft their own attendance zones and set their own academic criteria for entry."

That's cute, but let me cut to the chase: the Orleans Parish School Board is a hot mess twice warmed and everyone knows it.

The "impressive history" of the OPSB is its seemingly nonstop corruption and debilitating infighting. I know of no New Orleanian who is unaware of the district's many abuses of power, fraudkickbacks, or gross managerial incompetence that bankrupted the public schools with $300 million in debt.

How can we ignore an urban school district so notably broken that the FBI housed a field office in its headquarters?

A Seattle Times article in 2005 described NOLA schools this way:

Dozens of employees indicted or convicted on corruption charges. Tens of millions of dollars unaccounted for. Eight superintendents in seven years. Rock-bottom test scores. Shootings, sirens and police uniforms, often. The threat of bankruptcy and bounced checks, constantly. In the dismal gallery of failing urban school systems, New Orleans' may be the biggest horror of them all.

It wasn't just corruption. The academics under OPSB were appalling too. Results were outstandingly bad: according to New Schools for New Orleans nearly 100% of public school students weren't proficient in reading or math on Louisiana's 2004 high school exit exam, 1 in 4 local residents had not completed high school, and 40% of adults were reading below the elementary level.

That's my context when Perry says "Claims that the Orleans Parish School board isn’t ready to take on stable schools fall flat. Give them credit; the board manages successful charter schools and its finances well, and the district is second highest performing in the state."

Even if we ignore the OPSB's muddy history, we still have to admit their schools today are among the most selective in the city and the least likely to serve struggling students (including the poorest students and black students). Ironically, it is the democratically elected OPSB that serves as an unfortunate proof point for the hollow premise that education reform succeeds mostly by using admission criteria and constructive discharges of students.

Like Perry, I believe New Orleans schools should be locally and democratically controlled. I hope to see OPSB become professionalized and capable of the challenge. But that hope and two nickels aren't worth a cup of chicory if the past is prologue.

There is no evidence it is time to increase the governance powers of OPSB over successful schools that choose not to join a troubled district. That would needlessly threaten years of progress.

The new schools that emerged in New Orleans in the past decade, while not perfect, offer more hope than anything the OPSB has done historically. With all their known warts and perceived shortcomings, they still have managed to improve school options for families, and proficiency, graduation rates, and college enrollments for students. 

These gains are important because, unlike the OPSB, the RSD hasn't won by specializing in schools intended for the city's elite and advantaged. They are attempting the most important mass effort to raise the game for black kids that we have seen almost anywhere.

So, here's a pop quiz: who said "It's time now, in my opinion for the Recovery School District to exit the city of New Orleans"?

That was Ira Thomas who resigned recently from the OPSB after bribery charges were filed against him.

Perry addressed that problem in a previous post with his trademark sunshine. He said "Have faith folks. A certain school board members’ duplicity shouldn’t test your love for public school boards or a love of democracy."

What I have learned about Perry is that his love of black people is incomparable. His belief in our intelligence and capacity is unequaled.

I admire that and share the love. Black people rock.

Let's pronounce that as true and at the same time note that it is an insufficient argument for returning good schools back to a bad government.