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Landrieu touts charter school reform despite questionable results in New Orleans

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) spoke today at the Center for American Progress indicating education policymakers cannot wait for socio-economic conditions to improve for disadvantaged students, arguing instead for a public school landscape that includes charter schools.

The event discussed the ways in which funds from the School Improvement Grant, a federal program, could assist school districts in improving chronically underperforming schools. In addition to the senator, state and city public school administrators offered insight and context into school turnaround.

A longtime advocate of tapping charter operators to turn around struggling schools, the senator said her work in Louisiana included “breaking up the monopoly [of traditional school districts] and encouraging appropriate competition in public schools.”

The state, and New Orleans in particular, has emerged as a poster child for aggressive school turnaround measures, best exemplified by the Recovery School District.

In November 2005, the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 35 that put most of New Orleans’ schools in the hands of RSD, a school system introduced in 2003 by a separate piece of legislation that manages troubled institutions. Prior to the passage of Act 35, RSD operated five city schools. The new law increased the minimum performance threshold schools had to meet, deeming many in the city as failing.

As a result, between 107 and 115 schools were shuffled from the city’s original district — The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) — into either RSD or Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) control. As of March 2011, there were five school classifications totaling 88 schools within the city headed by three public authorities. Only 29 are not charters. This map illustrates the extent to which the city’s schools are balkanized (PDF). New Orleans now has the largest percentage of charter schools of any city in the U.S., at roughly 70 percent.

Performance indicators for New Orleans schools are mixed. While there is marked improvement for the city’s graduation rate and a decline in the number of drop outs, state test scores remain low. On the graded scale the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOA) is adopting this coming school year, a vast majority of schools in the RSD system will receive a mark of D or F. A group of education researchers critical of the RSD, Research on Reforms, determined (PDF) fewer than 10 percent of schools in the controversial district will score a C or better next year.

Rayne Martin, chief of innovation for LDOA, said, “we believe letter grades are right to be applied to all schools.” According to her, those ratings will be accompanied by an improvement value to show parents a school is making progress despite its low scores. “We understand there is an issue with community perception for the schools,” Martin said.

Labor groups might take pause with that explanation — a lawsuit is still pending in the Pelican State over the alleged wrongful dismissal of 8,500 employees, including 7,500 educators, shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck. Their jobs were terminated, the teachers group maintains, on the grounds “[LDOA] officials changed the definition of an acceptable School Performance Score from ‘60’ to ’88,’ which allowed the takeover of 107 NOPS schools.”

Landrieu sounded clinical at times when talking about traditional teachers, however. “Charter schools are in many ways a threat and competition to local school boards,” she said, calling publicly-operated school systems a monopoly on education. “If traditional teachers and principals can rally themselves and admit that they failed … they can be part of turnaround,” she added. “If not, they can leave.”

According to LDOE’s District-At-A-Glance website, RSD schools have a 91 percent rate of students on free and reduced lunch programs, a typical sign of low-economic status given the maximum income eligible for the program is $40,793 (185 percent of the federal poverty line) for a family of four. The state average is 66 percent.

The city’s charter schools run into other problems, according to critics. Selective admissions procedures favor higher-income families and many of the privately-managed, but publicly-funded, schools incorporate draconian expulsion policies that some say is a mechanism to protect those academies from low-performing students.

One of the reasons many school districts are mobilizing to opt-out of No Child Left Behind regulation is to avoid the 2002 federal legislation’s punitive sting. Earlier in June. U.S. Dept. of Education Sec. Arne Duncan told reporters if reforms to NCLB aren’t pushed through by Congress, 83 percent of schools nationwide could be labeled as failing.

Under NCLB, schools that persistently underperform must allow students to enroll in other programs within the district, taking valuable state and federal funding that rides with every pupil. The penalties continue to snowball until downright school closure or charter school takeover is prescribed. Other consequences include hiring a private company to take over operations or placing the school under direct state control. All of those options were put into play in New Orleans.

The CAP event considered models for school turnaround that depart from NCLB.

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