A unique district is moving deeper into the unknown. After a December 5 runoff election, the seven-member Orleans Parish School Board will have four new faces. They will take office in the midst of a crisis as devastating as a yearlong hurricane. But what can an elected school board do to help students recover from Covid-19 when, under the unusual state law in Louisiana, the board can’t hire principals, fire teachers or choose curriculum? How can the panel help schools improve?
“That’s sort of the million-dollar question,” Education Research Alliance for New Orleans director Doug Harris said.
New Orleans schools have attracted national attention since a state takeover after Hurricane Katrina that emphasized charter schools, parent choice, and test-based accountability.
All seven of the school board seats were contested. Two incumbents chose not to run. One moved away, and his appointed interim replacement did not make the runoff. In the most dramatic race, J.C. Romero barely squeaked into the runoff but then beat incumbent Leslie Ellison, who missed winning re-election in the November primary by barely 50 votes. Because Romero is gay, Ellison’s well-known opposition to legal protections for LGBTQ people took center stage in that race.
All four newcomers have experience working in schools or government. Glass artist Carlos Zervigon, a former teacher, co-founded one prestigious, selective charter school and was board president of another. Olin Parker led the state team that monitors charter schools. Katie Baudouin was an aide to two city councilmembers. Romero works as a charter school administrator. Baudouin and Parker also have children in New Orleans public elementary schools.
Board President Ethan Ashley won re-election, as did John Brown Sr. and Nolan Marshall Jr. Marshall now becomes the longest-serving member, having taken office in 2012.
As in previous post-Katrina elections, charter supporters and business groups played a much larger financial role than unions, according to Louisiana Ethics Commission records filed as of December 7. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers spent $14,000. The National Education Association’s state affiliate, the Louisiana Association of Educators Political Action Committee, concentrated on state matters, spending $500,000 to defeat a constitutional amendment that would have let developers opt out of paying property taxes, which fund schools. Louisiana is a right-to-work state, and few New Orleans charter schools are unionized.
Meanwhile, Jim Walton, of the family that controls Walmart, gave at least $450,000 to four education-spending political action committees. They included D.C.–based Education Reform Now Advocacy, which spent at least $690,000 on the election.
The fact that the United Teachers of New Orleans endorsed several vocally pro-charter candidates shows how much things have changed. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the state Recovery School District took over four-fifths of the city’s long-troubled public schools. All the city’s schools eventually became charters, leaving the Orleans Parish School Board a toothpick of its previous self. (See “Good News for New Orleans,” Fall 2015.) The changes met some resistance, but test scores went up dramatically.
When Orleans Parish school Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. arrived in 2015, he embraced the nontraditional, decentralized model of a district composed of autonomous schools. The public desire for local, elected oversight overrode the simmering trepidation over “bad old OPSB.” Lewis and Recovery superintendent Patrick Dobard eventually convinced the state to reverse the takeover. To herald the changes, the district rebranded as NOLA Public Schools.
All the winning candidates pledged support for a Forward New Orleans five-item agenda that implicitly keeps the district a decentralized swarm of autonomous charters—which state law requires at any rate. “I don’t think there’s any support for getting rid of the system,” Harris said. Dobard, who now runs the school advocacy and training group New Schools for New Orleans, agreed: “It’s not likely to happen anytime in the near future.”
Instead, the charters have gotten used to working together. The return-of-schools legislation reified several policies to ensure fairness, including a unified discipline system and a common school enrollment system, OneApp. All the schools are also subject to a federal court consent decree monitoring special education. When the pandemic hit, the charter schools worked together with the district to standardize decisions on when to restart in-person school.
However, while the last board successfully reunified the district, the new board faces new problems from Covid-19. It will likely have to deal with painful budget cuts: city taxes rely on hospitality and tourism, and state revenues on oil and gas. The long-term consequences of the pandemic could be devastating in a district whose educational improvement has stalled since 2013, and where schools risk losing their charters if they miss academic targets.
These problems aren’t unique to New Orleans. But OPSB has a unique set of tools—or rather, a lack thereof. The state tied the local board’s hands when it came to most of the traditional work a district does.
“The role of the board becomes selecting operators and determining what kind of schools we want to have and who’s going to run them,” Harris said. “They’re always grappling at the margins of what they can do.”
Lewis and the current School Board have taken tough decisions on pulling and disciplining charters. This week, Lewis recommended transitioning F-rated Crocker College Prep to new leadership.
Can they stake out a larger vision? Parker says that is a reason he ran for a seat. He speaks of ensuring “opportunity for every child … an A-rated school in every neighborhood,” and a meaningful racial equity plan. He left his job monitoring charters to run for election because “I saw the limits of what you can do from the state government side, and the impact of changing policies,” he said. “I think OPSB still has a huge role to play.”
Danielle Dreilinger is an education reporter based in New Orleans. Her book The Secret History of Home Economics comes out in May 2021.
Last updated December 10, 2020