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Opportunity of a Lifetime 

No one type of school — including charter schools — is the cure-all for our ailing system.

Among the most important reports issued by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission is its plan for overhauling public education in the post-Katrina Crescent City. Unfortunately, the plan didn't get the immediate attention it deserved because it was released the day after Mayor Ray Nagin's intemperate "chocolate city" and "God's revenge" remarks on Martin Luther King Day. The furor that came in the wake of the mayor's comments drowned out the positive news in the report. That's a shame, because the plan presents an excellent blueprint for replacing one of the nation's worst public school systems with one that has the potential to become one of its best. The plan, which can be downloaded from www.bringneworleansback.org, deserves everyone's close attention and full support.

The plan first details the extent of the problem as well as the overarching needs and aspirations that come with building a successful public school system. It also documents the extensive steps taken by the plan's architects (led by Tulane University President Scott Cowen) to ensure significant public input at every stage. It concludes with a set of specific recommendations for effective governance and decentralized management, plus a step-by-step process for taking the system from where it is today to where it needs to be in order to succeed.

The plan envisions a new "educational network model" for governance and management. Rather than having all schools report to a single central office, the new system would be made up of several "educational networks." This model is rooted in the goals of empowerment, flexibility and accountability -- three elements that have been sorely lacking in the system's current "centralized office" model. The four cornerstones of this new model will be developing local school networks, recruiting and retaining top talent at every level, creating a lean district office, and revamping the school board itself. Each of those cornerstones represents fundamental change, and that's exactly what's needed to turn our public school system around. To fully appreciate the extent of the proposed changes, it is necessary to examine each of them in depth.

• School networks reflect all of the primary goals of the plan: empowerment, flexibility and accountability. The plan would establish several school networks, with schools in each network sharing similar characteristics -- charter schools, district-operated schools, etc. -- so that they could benefit from sharing their experiences and resources. Each network would be supervised by a separate administrator who focuses on that network's schools, and eventually each would include eight to 15 schools. This model puts more decision-making authority in the hands of individual principals, who would hold teachers accountable for student achievement and be themselves accountable for their schools' overall performance. Equally important, this model gets the system away from a "one size fits all" governance and management model. Instead, it recognizes that no one type of school -- including charter schools -- is the cure-all for our ailing system.

• Hiring top-drawer talent is a must, and the plan says it best: "High quality talent is necessary at all levels in order for this plan to be effective. Designing a transparent process for recruiting a world-class superintendent will be a critical part of this plan. To help retain and develop top talent at all levels, all networks and schools will be required to actively develop their staff. This can be achieved with induction programs, job-embedded coaching and ongoing mentoring ... at all schools, both district and charter run."

• A leaner district office would not have comprehensive control over schools, and that would be a welcome change. Instead, central staff would focus on making policy, setting standards and allocating resources equitably. Most of all, the central office would not make operational decisions at individual schools, such as choosing teaching methods or managing spending. Such decisions would be made at the network or school level. This model thus brings a "bottom-up focus" that empowers and supports educators, rather than a "top-down focus" that empowers a large central office. This aspect of the plan may be its most important break from the past.

• The committee's call for "aligned governance" means an appointed seven-member board with members named by the governor and the mayor, and serving staggered terms. This allows for a more professional school board that puts kids -- not politics -- first. The plan also calls for creating a National Advisory Board. "Throughout, this process has benefited from generous contributions ... from some of the country's top experts in education," the report states. "A National Advisory Board would create a more permanent relationship to ensure a steady stream of best ideas and opportunities from across the country for improving public education in New Orleans." Such an independent, objective board also could assure citizens that the local board is staying on track.

So how do we go from where we are now to this model?

The plan puts responsibility squarely on the shoulders of local and state education officials to develop one single plan. It also calls upon the mayor, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and all community leaders and organizations to support such a plan. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime," the report concludes. We couldn't agree more.

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