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Keeping New Orleans Schools on the Right Track 

When the state took over New Orleans' failing public schools after Hurricane Katrina, those with ties to the old system predicted — some say hoped — that the nation's most aggressive experiment in education reform would fail. When it became clear that the state's commitment to change was unshakable, opponents of the new order shifted course and started demanding a quick return of the improved schools to the local school board.

  That's going to be the next big fight over education reform. Next year, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) must decide whether to allow the Recovery School District (RSD) to continue operating 70 public schools in New Orleans or turn them back over to the Orleans Parish School Board.

  The stakes are high: control over the schools as well as their budgets, contracts and hiring practices — and the future of more than 36,000 kids.

  Public opinion will factor heavily in this fight. In this case, the public is squarely on the side of reform — and there's ample objective evidence that the public has got it right.

  Data clearly show that student performance in New Orleans public schools has improved significantly since (and despite) Katrina. Composite scores reflecting student performance can be viewed on the Web site of educatenow.net, a nonprofit organization "dedicated to effective and sustainable reform of New Orleans public schools." Here's what the data show:

  On a scale of 0-200, public schools in Orleans Parish improved their scores from 56.9 in 2005 to 66.4 in 2008. Clearly, our public schools have a long way to go, but the trend is equally clear: Local public schools are getting better. By comparison, the statewide score remained flat from 2005-2008, dropping two-tenths of a point from 87.4 to 87.2. Jefferson Parish schools fell slightly more, from 74.3 to 73.5. In fact, New Orleans was the only hurricane-impacted parish to show improvement since Katrina.

  More important, scores from the spring of 2009 suggest that the rate of improvement in New Orleans' public schools is accelerating. For example, the percentage of fourth graders who met the promotional standard increased from 51 percent in 2005 (just before Katrina) to 58 percent in 2008 — and to 63 percent in 2009. Among eighth graders, the results were similar: from 37 percent in 2005 to 46 percent in 2008 — and to 52 percent in 2009. Student scores on LEAP tests show similar gains.

  Again, we have a long way to go, but the objective data show that New Orleans public schools are getting better.

  And the public has taken notice.

  A recent survey of New Orleans voters by the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL) shows that the overwhelming majority of the city's voters — black and white — don't want to turn back the clock on public education. Asked whether control of the local RSD schools should be returned to the Orleans Parish School Board next year, only 21 percent of Orleans voters favored an immediate return. Another 17 percent said to return them in three to five years (i.e., keep them with RSD for a while longer), and 45 percent said don't return them at all. Overall, 62 percent do not want the schools returned to local school board control next year.

  When pollsters informed voters that test scores had improved, the percentage against returning the schools to local control next year rose to 68 percent.

  The data and the public argue for staying the course, but don't assume BESE will pay attention to either. Most BESE members are elected from outside New Orleans — and some of them have failing public schools in their districts on the verge of being taken over by the RSD.

  The fight for education reform should be about the kids, but more often it's about control.

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