In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the State of Louisiana took over most Orleans Parish public schools from the then-hapless (and, in some cases, criminal) Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). The law that empowered the new Recovery School District (RSD) also stated that underperforming public schools that were transferred to the RSD could be returned to local control after five years. This week, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) will vote on a plan by state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek to begin returning some Orleans Parish public schools to local control during the 2012-13 school year — less than two years from now.
The so-called "Pastorek Plan" has stirred heated and sometimes angry debate. An Oct. 14 public meeting at McDonogh 35 drew a crowd so large that hundreds were turned away. Despite the controversy surrounding it, we think the Pastorek Plan charts a reasonable middle ground between those who want to make the RSD's role permanent and those who want schools returned to local control immediately. Under the Pastorek Plan, a school may transfer to or return to prior local control if it meets two criteria: a School Performance Score above BESE's "academically unacceptable" standard, and demonstrated academic growth for two consecutive school years. These are not high bars to meet, yet many public schools will struggle to reach them. Orleans Parish schools that satisfy the requirements will have two options: stay under the RSD control or return to the OPSB's control.
There's room for honest disagreement about the Pastorek Plan. Unfortunately, some have chosen to frame the debate in racial terms, claiming the RSD is part of a white conspiracy to take over public education. That tack is inaccurate, inflammatory and irresponsible. Many white parents support returning public schools to the OPSB, and many black parents want to keep the RSD in place. A recent survey by Tulane University's Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives found 58 percent of all respondents still support the state's 2005 decision to take over underperforming public schools in New Orleans. Some 48 percent of black respondents felt that way. Given the survey's 5 percent margin of error, African-American residents are divided almost equally on that question.
There is less room for disagreement about the RSD's results. New Orleans public school students for decades lagged in student proficiency, but in the five years the RSD has been running local schools, student scores have risen significantly faster than the state average — to the point that 53 percent of New Orleans public school students test at "basic or above" levels. (In 2005, it was 37 percent.) In October, when the state Department of Education issued its district performance scores, the RSD was the most improved district in Louisiana.
And the public has taken note. In the Cowen poll, when asked if New Orleans public schools were getting better or worse, a majority of both blacks and whites agreed they were getting better. That indicates not only consensus, but also a sense that New Orleanians see real progress in local public schools. That may be the strongest argument of all for BESE to vote "yes" on the Pastorek Plan this week.
None of this is intended to reflect poorly on the current Orleans Parish School Board, which likewise has done a remarkable job of improving the already well-performing schools under its jurisdiction since Katrina. The current board (five of its seven members are first-termers) also has completely reversed the district's financial fortunes, to the point that the OPSB now has the highest bond rating in the metro area and several consecutive years of clean audits. That said, the board is nowhere near ready to go from managing 18 schools (12 charters, four traditional, and two jail programs) to running several dozen additional schools — many of which have a history of academic struggle.
The Pastorek Plan is a reasoned approach to a complex problem that was decades in the making. Local control is the ultimate goal, but there's no need to rush back to a governance model that failed for generations, no matter how much the OPSB has progressed since Katrina. Two years is not too long to wait.