Feb 162016
Students from Sylvanie Williams College Prep marching band perform in the 2016 Martin Luther King Day parade. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

Students from Sylvanie Williams College Prep marching band perform in the 2016 Martin Luther King Day parade. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

State legislators should pass a law this year requiring all New Orleans schools – even those still considered to be struggling – to return to local control of the Orleans Parish School board by 2019, effectively ending the Recovery School District’s presence in the city in three years, the head of a prominent charter network said Tuesday night.

“The RSD was always a temporary change agent, and it’s served its purpose,” said Ben Kleban, CEO of the New Orleans College Prep charter network.

Kleban’s comments followed the New Orleans College Prep board’s annual conversation about whether to return any of its schools from the RSD to OPSB control. This year, two of its campuses — Cohen College Prep high school and Crocker College Prep elementary — were both eligible to return, based on their rising scores on state standardized tests.

At Kleban’s recommendation, the College Prep board voted at Tuesday night’s meeting against returning either school to OPSB for the coming school year. But Kleban also explained to the board that his belief that OPSB should now be preparing to receive all the RSD schools back over a three-year transition period.

“RSD was never designed to govern schools forever,” Kleban told the College Prep board. “Personally, I believe it is time to have a unified system under local control.”

Peter Harding, chair of the College Prep board, agreed with Kleban that it is clear that a major change in governance for New Orleans schools is coming, even if this coming year wasn’t right for Crocker and Cohen.

“We all believe we should be back with the OPSB at some point in time,” Harding said.

Before that can happen, however, Kleban said he and other charter network leaders believe that certain assurances should be made, either through OPSB policies or, where possible, through state law. The changes they believe still need to be made law include:

  • Charter networks should be able to retain their autonomy over such school-level decisions as curriculum, textbooks, calendars, teacher and administrator hiring and evaluation, and contracts for major services.
  • All charters should be subject to the same standards for their operating agreements, and the OPSB should limit its authorization of new charters based on the citywide demand for seats.
  • All schools should participate in the same enrollment system, and all should provide free public transportation. Likewise, all New Orleans schools should be subject to the same formula for receiving a state per-pupil funding, which has been controversial for some schools like Lusher and Audubon.

Current state law allows each charter school under Recovery School District control to choose whether to return to the OPSB once it becomes eligible, based on school-performance scores. So far, Martin Luther King Charter is the only school to do so, although the New Beginnings charter network voted last week for two of its schools to return if the OPSB can match RSD’s property insurance rates.

Kleban, however, said such a piecemeal, school-by-school approach is insufficient to return the majority of schools back to OPSB in a timely fashion. Instead, the education community — including the OPSB officials, charter leaders and activists — should work with state lawmakers this legislative session to craft a framework for the transition to happen over the next three years, he said.

“If every entity is trying to figure out when is the right time for it, and maybe even set conditions — rather than that happen, I think we ought to come together as a whole school system to in support a bill for a resolution that would advance this forward,” Kleban said in an interview after the board meeting. “I don’t think that can happen if everyone’s sort of doing their own thing on their own timeline, with their own conditions.”

A state-mandated transition should move all schools back to OPSB control, not only those considered eligible under current standards — effectively ending the Recovery School District’s presence in New Orleans, Kleban acknowledged. He said the charter system in New Orleans, once considered experimental, has matured to the point that it can actually replace the RSD.

“I don’t think it’s needed in New Orleans anymore,” Kleban said.

The RSD was originally created before Hurricane Katrina to take over Louisiana schools deemed “failing,” and only assumed control over the majority of the school system in New Orleans because the OPSB lacked capacity to reopen them all after the citywide flooding. Now, Kleban says, enough charter operators are showing success in those same schools that an outside, state-run agency like the RSD is no longer needed to step in if a single school’s performance is deemed unacceptable.

“If that’s the case, there are operators ready to try to turn that around. The district doesn’t have to do it. The RSD doesn’t have to try to do it. That wasn’t the case right after Katrina,” Kleban said. “The charter system itself is almost a built-in mechanism for accountability and turnover of management if it’s not working. … If a school gets [its charter] revoked for performance, there’s somebody willing and able to do better.”

While calls to end the RSD have been a feature of New Orleans education politics for years, Kleban is one of the first prominent leaders of a RSD-authorized charter to publicly describe how that end may play out. Notably, many of the key features of his proposal — such as the move toward a unified formula for allocating per-pupil tax dollars in Orleans Parish, or requirements for more public transportation — are already being enacted this year.

Mary Garton, who leads the OPSB office governing charter schools, was present at the College Prep board meeting and praised Kleban for his groundwork trying to determine what needs to happen to bring the RSD schools back to OPSB. Kleban has been in conversation with OPSB leaders about how the transition would work, and while the OPSB has yet to set its legislative agenda for the year, Garton said she expects the board to take up that conversation very soon.

“I anticipate that will happen at our meeting this month,” Garton said.

To read our live coverage of Tuesday’s meeting, see below.

Live Blog New Orleans College Prep board meeting – Feb. 16, 2016

  • Cannibal Special

    Hmm, no mention of the rampant corruption, malfeasance and incompetence historically found in the OPSB. The RSD and charter schools, while not perfect, have been the best thing that ever happened to public education in NO. How do we move forward without backsliding to the bad old days?

  • NOLA Born and Raised

    Cannibal, I guess you have not kept up with the corruption, malfeasance and incompetence happening in the RSD (Lagniappe, RENEW, Landry/Walker), etc. And of course Dobard and White just give them a tap on the hand and keep it moving……