Reunited, But Will It Be Good? Considerations and Concerns as New Orleans School Board Absorbs Local Recovery District Schools

Sunday marked a major milestone for a city with one of the most radical education reform transformations in the country.

For the first since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in 2005, almost all New Orleans schools are under the jurisdiction of the city’s school board. The Orleans Parish School Board (OBSP) officially unified the 38 parish schools operated by Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) in fulfillment of a 2016 state law.

What does this mean for education in New Orleans? Will families be more or less empowered following the unification?

First, some context. Despite its name, the Recovery School District was not implemented as a response to Hurricane Katrina. It came about two years prior as a way to improve (and, often, close) under-performing schools both in New Orleans and across Louisiana. The district was operated by the state and imposed strict accountability measures in exchange for increased school autonomy.

The OPSB, historically the school district of New Orleans proper, oversaw the remaining schools not under RSD jurisdiction prior to reunification. In some ways, it was like a “normal” school district. It served as the city’s education administrative unit, heard complaints from stakeholders and consisted of seven elected board members.

But in many more ways, OPSB has been the farthest thing from a “normal” school district. More on that shortly.

Post-Katrina, New Orleans students in the RSD and OPSB have made notable strides in multiple academic measures. These include “good” and “excellent” scores in end-of-year testing (58 percent improvement), mastery in state assessments (more than triple 2006–07 results), and a nearly two-point improvement in ACT scores since 2004–05.

The potential effect of unification remains to be seen with respect to the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), the state’s private school voucher program serving low-income children in low-performing schools. New Orleans has one of the highest private school participation rates in the country, in part due to the LSP. Nearly 7,000 Louisiana students used vouchers last year, with those in New Orleans using the same common application system that’s used for traditional district and charter schools. Families rank-order schools schools—regardless of sector—and then students are matched to schools by a variety of factors (this means private schools participating in the program can’t choose their voucher-using students). Schools in the consolidated OPSB will largely continue to use the common app.

How do locals feel about the unification? In a word: mixed. Most (64 percent) respondents gave the unification process a “C” or “B” grade so far in a recent survey, a three-point increase since last year. But those giving the unification a “D” rose by 50 percent (10 percent to 15 percent). Strikingly, private school parents were twice as likely to give the process an “A” (12 percent) than public school parents (6 percent).

The survey sample included an overweight of parent respondents, with this group representative of the city’s private and public schooling sectors. New Orleanians indicated the united OSPB should focus on school performance, accountability and post-graduation success in its new phase. For the most part, those are the guiding principles of OPSB’s unification plan. The plan additionally seeks to ensure equity and create a diverse set of choices for New Orleans families, managed through its common app.

As it was before, OPSB will continue to be more of a school authorizer than a school operator in its post-unification environment. That’s because almost all the schools in OPSB and all schools integrating from the RSD are charter schools that are run by groups other than the school district. This change accelerated in the OPSB following Katrina, which necessitated collaboration among multiple educational partners in order to return schooling to New Orleans. Due to this transformation, the schools in the RSD as well as most in the unified OPSB weren’t competing with the same entity that authorized it.

Intuitively, this separation makes sense when applied to other fields. You don’t get to be the prosecutor and the judge, the umpire and the first baseman, etc. Yet the way public education is designed in most of the United States—with residentially-assigned school districts overseeing and operating schools to which families are zoned—comingles these functions in potentially morally hazardous ways. This is especially true for charter schools authorized by school districts, and a lesser extent to private schools competing for public funds and exposure on platforms like New Orleans’ OneApp.

Some have argued for OPSB to give parents more of a voice post-unification. On paper, parents in New Orleans had a variety of schooling choices. But the decisions regarding accountability measures and school closures were left up to state bureaucrats in the RSD. Also noteworthy is how non-parent citizens will be heard in the unified OPSB. These stakeholders couldn’t vote for school leaders or policies related to the RSD. That surely stung some, especially in communities that saw school closures. The unified OPSB will have to answer to parents and non-parents alike, as both vote for its members.

And that’s where things could get messy. While democratic accountability deserves to be lauded, some have warned that the unification may be a step back for public education in New Orleans, especially in regard to potential political vulnerability.

Take Douglas County, Colorado, for example. School board members there created the nation’s first district-operated private school voucher program in 2011. Participating private schools were to adhere to various standards and regulations, including things like accreditation and comparable achievement results to neighboring schools. In this regard, board members were shedding some of their operating duties in favor of their higher-level authorizing ones. They recognized that—despite the public schools’ high ratings—those schools were not right for all families. As a democratically-elected body, the board wanted to be accountable to all families by providing more options.

But—through elections—board members change. After years of litigation and a changing political environment, a newly elected Douglas County School Board voted to terminate its voucher program late last year.

Could parents in New Orleans lose their charter schools and private school choice through a school board repeal? Do they face the same threat that was carried out in Colorado? Not exactly. The Douglas County program was ruled unconstitutional at the state supreme court level. The same can’t be said for charter schools or vouchers in Louisiana, the latter of which has seen challenges on funding mechanisms but not to the program’s existence.

In addition, there’s a stark parental empowerment difference when comparing New Orleans and Douglas County families. To quote the melodies of Joni Mitchell, “[Y]ou don’t know what you’ve got to it’s gone.” While parents in Douglas County were undoubtedly upset by the Colorado Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling and school board’s  2017 program repeal, and even applied for and received approval for vouchers in 2011 before litigation swept through, they were never actually able to use them. That is definitely not the case in New Orleans, where parents have been utilizing choice—and been satisfied with their choices—for years.

The data back this up: Nearly two-thirds of locals believe charter schools have improved public education in New Orleans, and a similar proportion (67 percent) support vouchers that allow parents to use public funds for private schools. Loss aversion theory tells us parents would feel more damage if they lost educational options they already have than acquiring equivalent ones. If newly elected OPSB board members and state legislators decided to limit parental choices in the form of charters and vouchers in the future, the pushback would likely exceed that of Colorado.

Despite these differences, it’s important to monitor the education environment within New Orleans from here on out. School choice in New Orleans is far from perfect, but it’s done more to separate government funding of education from government operation of schools than just about any other American city. How the OPSB proceeds from this point on could have ripple effects for school leaders and families both in New Orleans and elsewhere.