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New Orleans Needs To Reform Its School Board Before RSD Schools Return, OPSB Needs To Make Equity Its Priority

Students at KIPP Central City Primary School raise their hands during a social studies class on August 14, 2014 in New Orleans. The school's student body is nearly 100 percent black in a system that is 85 percent black.

The question of whether eligible Recovery School District (RSD) charters should be returned to the control of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks, thanks to House Bill 166, a proposal from Rep. Joseph Bouie, which would have forced eligible RSD charters to return to OPSB within a year. Current law allows the board of directors of eligible charter schools to decide whether to return to OPSB.

Although House Bill 166 met its demise on the House floor on a vote of 31-62, thanks in large part to the efforts of New Orleans lawmaker Rep. Neil Abramson, Bouie’s proposal revived the long-smoldering debate about if, when, and how schools taken over by RSD should return to local control. Most notably, education commentators Andre Perry and Chris Stewart took to their blogs to debate whether schools were ready to return. Their exchange can be summed up as follows:

  • PERRY: “Schools can return to local control if we put our minds to it!”
  • STEWART: “Are you kidding? OPSB is a hot mess [lists several major problems]. They’re not ready.”
  • PERRY: “Schools can return to local control if we put our minds to it! Don’t drink the haterade!”
  • STEWART: “If trusting the judgment of those working in schools is haterade, pour me a glass.”
Education bloggers Chris Stewart and Andre Perry
Education bloggers Chris Stewart and Andre Perry

It’s no secret that I’ve been an opponent of returning eligible charters to OPSB. My opposition stems from a fear that our progress since Katrina could be slowly reversed if schools are returned to local control. On the other hand, I’m not naïve enough to believe that the current arrangement can last forever – at some point in the future, the charters now under the aegis of the RSD will be returned to local control. Therefore, before that that day comes, we as a community need to ensure that policies and structures are in place to prevent the board from slowly backsliding toward the dysfunction of the past.

Below, I address the policy changes OPSB should make make before eligible RSD charters return to local control.

OPSB Needs To Make Equity Its Priority

This past year, the boards of directors of 35 out of 36 eligible schools elected to stay with the RSD and with good reason: the Orleans Parish School Board has yet to make equity its priority. Before Katrina, a two-tiered public education system existed in New Orleans. On the one hand were a handful of well-resourced, selective-admissions magnets that served middle class white and black families, and on the other, were the decrepit, perennially-failing neighborhood schools that served everyone else. Chris Stewart alluded to this disparity in his exchange with Andre Perry:

“New Orleans has always had schools that screened out poor kids to create enclaves for the black elite and the sons and daughters of bankers and doctors. I know what the other side of that coin looks like having attended schools for the other people.”

To its credit, the RSD has implemented policies aimed at maximizing equity for students and families, starting with the fact that all schools in the RSD are open-enrollment and families can apply to any school in the city. Many RSD school leaders I’ve spoken with are concerned that OPSB doesn’t share that same commitment to equity and worry that the return of RSD charters would simply recreate the two-tiered system they’ve worked so hard to eliminate.

However, the very fact that each RSD charter gets to decide whether to return to OPSB gives them powerful leverage. Thus, I propose that eligible RSD charters band together and set three conditions for their return to local control:

I. Require all OPSB schools to participate in the OneApp enrollment system

One of the most important mechanisms for ensuring equity in New Orleans’ public school system is OneApp, the RSD-administered city-wide enrollment system created to make the process as fair and accessable as possible for families. Every charter school in the RSD, as well as direct-run schools under OPSB1, are required to use OneApp. However, eight elite, selective-admissions OPSB charters have chosen to retain their own application processes and timelines, and OPSB has thus far refused to require these schools to join OneApp until their charters are renewed, which in some instances won’t happen until 2021.

Some believe that these schools, which tend to enroll a whiter, more affluent student population, are refusing to join OneApp as a means of deterring low-income, minority students from applying. As evidence, they point to schools like Lusher Charter, one of the highest-performing public schools in the city, which has refused to join OneApp. In truth, when one looks at the application process, it’s not hard to see why some claim it’s exclusionary, whether intentional or not.

To start, Lusher sets aside a significant portion of its entering kindergarten spots for families its neighborhood preference zone [see below], an area in Uptown New Orleans that encompasses both Tulane and Loyola universities. Furthermore, Lusher has an exclusive agreement with Tulane, in which it sets aside a designated number of spots for qualified children of full-time university staff.

Families outside of these two groups must vie for the small number of remaining openings and are selected according to a admissions matrix [see below], in which applicants (in most cases, pre-K students applying for kindergarten spots) are scored on the basis of a reading/math examination, a written application, and “parental involvement,” where prospective students earn points for parent attendance at a “curriculum meeting” as well as for completing a questionaire. Competition for the limited number of spots at Lusher is so fierce, it’s nearly impossible to be admitted without achieving a near-perfect score on the matrix.

[aesop_image img=”” align=”center” lightbox=”on” caption=”Lusher’s application matrix this year.” captionposition=”center”]

Of course, the question of whether Lusher uses these elements as a means to screen out certain families is purely speculative. To be clear, the school does serve students of all colors and backgrounds, and those fortunate enough to gain admittance most certainly receive a high-quality education. On the other hand, if you’re a single parent working two jobs to feed your family, good luck jumping through the various hoops required for admission to Lusher, or other OneApp holdouts like Lake Forest, whose application requirements are irritatingly convoluted.

Lake Forest's list of excessively long list of application requirements.
Lake Forest’s list of excessively long list of application requirements – and no, this isn’t a joke.

But here’s the thing: Lusher and other OPSB schools that have yet to join OneApp could likely retain their admissions exams and neighborhood preferences under the unified enrollment system. The only difference is that the unallocated seats at these schools would be assigned through OneApp according to their timeline2. Parents would only have to fill out one application that covers every school in the city, making the enrollment process infinitely easier for families to navigate. Given that these holdouts are public schools that receive taxpayer money, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

II. Require all OPSB schools to provide transportation to students free-of-charge, no matter where they live in the city

City-wide access and a universal enrollment system doesn’t get you much if students have no way of getting to and from school each day. Therefore, RSD charters are required to provide free transportation to students regardless of where they live in the city. As The Lens highlighted in a widely-cited yet totally overblown “exposé” on charter busing back in 2013, this requirement imposes significant costs and logistical challenges for RSD charters. However, many charter school leaders believe it’s a price worth paying in order to ensure that families can access the educational options available to them.

Transportation shouldn't be a barrier preventing low income families for attending a public school.
Transportation shouldn’t prevent low income families from attending any public school.

Unfortunately, several OPSB charters don’t provide free transportation to students, which presents a significant obstacle to low income students who might otherwise attend these schools. As Della Hasselle reported in an piece for WWNO, Lusher offers bus service to students, but families must pay out-of-pocket for the privilege, which at the time cost somewhere between $600-$700 per year. In contrast, Ben Franklin High School provides free bus transportation for students who reside in New Orleans East, while families who live Uptown or on the Westbank must pay for the service.

Of course, it goes without saying that the lack of free transportation presents a significant barrier to poor families and no doubt deters many from even applying to these schools. That shouldn’t be the case. Requiring all schools to provide free transportation would send a clear message to RSD charters that OPSB is committed to providing equitable access to its schools.

III. Adopt the tiered special education funding model in use by the Recovery School District

I’ve addressed the RSD’s unique special education funding formula previously, so I won’t belabor the point too much. Let it suffice to say that the difference in the cost of educating a student with a speech disorder, for example, whose IEP requires five hours of therapy a week vs. the cost of educating a student with a severe physical disability who requires a full-time aide is huge. The current SPED funding model used in OPSB doesn’t take those cost differentials into consideration.

However, as noted in a recent report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, the RSD allocates special education funds based on each special needs student’s “disability category plus a student’s total weekly service minutes, tying the dollars to the actual special services a student needs.” This cost-conscious approach allows RSD charters to open their doors to special education students without having to scramble to find money to pay for the services they require. It also gives schools the flexibility to pursue innovative ways of supporting special education students, both in and out of the classroom. As a result, special education students in New Orleans charter schools are outperforming their peers across the state on several measures, including their high school graduation rate.

Special needs students in NOLA graduate a higher rate than their peers across the state, no doubt thanks to the RSD's unique SPED funding formula.
Special needs students in NOLA graduate a higher rate than their peers across the state, no doubt thanks to the RSD’s unique SPED funding formula – graphic from CRPE.

Because RSD charters currently serve a disproportionate number of the city’s special needs students, they will be reticent to return to OPSB unless the district adopts the RSD’s SPED funding approach. If OPSB wants to entice these schools back into the fold, the district needs make sure they can continue to serve their special education populations without taking a big hit to their bottom lines.

Read more about Lusher’s admissions process:

Equity, transparency undercut by holdouts against OneApp school admissions process

  1. To their credit, New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School (or “Sci High”) voluntarily agreed to join OneApp back in March
  2. The application deadline for Lusher, Lake Forest, and other schools in the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools this year was January 9th – a full seven weeks before OneApp’s first round deadline on February 28th. 

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


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