It's been many many months since I've talked about the state of public schools, which had previously been one of my more consistent beats.
I was pretty demoralized by the way the School Facilities Master Plan went down and the results of the Orleans Parish School Board elections only compounded my misery.
I've been trying to rethink how to approach the issue of public education given that some of the things I had been trying to fight against or force compromise on have become established reality.
One of the things I'd been emphasizing was the disorganized and reckless charterization and privatization. I was worried that the RSD had no real game plan for the eventual restoration of local control over schools. The implications of having such a balkanized administrative model over the short term were alarming; the potential for waste is important enough, but inattentiveness to general admission traditional public schools was scariest.
Although this is anecdotal based off of different things I've heard and read, I have noticed that, lately, there does appear to be increased concern in regard to poor performance at RSD schools. But one thing I think is disingenuous about the RSD is that poor performing traditional schools are almost set up to fail. Poor test scores provide the impetus to bring in charter operators to take over. This is happening at Frederick Douglass High School, for instance. Though the building was in sound condition, it had been slated for closure as recently as this fall; the award winning writing program, Students at the Center, was made unwelcome. In this kind of environment, how can a successful program be implemented? It can't.
But low and behold, Frederick Douglass High School has been saved because a charter operator, KIPP, is now interested in the facility.
Now you may find this kind of approach - helping schools into academic bankruptcy via systemic confusion or neglect - to be pretty disingenuous. And so do I.
Still, Paul Vallas has pretty successfully implemented what he set out to implement - the largest experiment in charterization in the nation's history. Whether that translates into higher achievement for students is another matter entirely. So is whether or not this model is economically or physically sustainable in the medium or long term, given that Mr. Vallas has made me look smart for predicting that he'd stretch his own budget to the max by spending one time revenue on recurring costs.
I advocated for a model resembling something closer to pilot schools in Boston, which allow for the academic exploration and experimentation that was the impetus for progressive embrace of the charter concept in the first place but without the same risks associated with unadulterated private charter boards. The pilot model allows for successes in one school to be replicated in others. Charters organizations, on the other hand, become like mini corporations, and successes are too easily treated as trade secrets. It's the difference between a true public education system and a for-profit education industry.
On the national level, people that have been alarmed by the ramrod approach of some charter proponents do not necessarily have an ally in the Obama administration, depending on whether early stances on issues like merit pay for teachers (which sounds better in theory than it might be in practice) foreshadow other policies.
Given the 'success' of Vallas' charterization plan and the larger momentum of the privatization movement on the national level, local advocates of true public education need to think through where they're at on certain issues and reorient in order to make the best of the new calculus.
One thing I'd like to see is a real shake up at UTNO. I don't know if that means management changes there, since I'm not particularly familiar with who's in charge. But it does mean that there needs to be a focus on organizing the younger TeachNola and TFA teachers. Things like merit pay appear to be on their way. UTNO would be wise to be ready to make sure that the measures used to determine achievement are fair to teachers. Beyond that, there needs to be a plan that grants good teachers legitimate stable job security without entrenching bad teachers. Given that UTNO's relevance has cratered, now is as good a time as any to reorient, as painful as it might be to do so.
On the issue of charters, I think at this point it's hard to just dig in and fight against the charters. It's not that it's an unstoppable freight train, it's that the train has already passed our station. What I think we need to do moving forward is force the RSD, OPSB, and the various charter operators to come up with a road map to local administration where charters cede some degree of control to a centralized body responsible for forceful oversight. In other words, whereas I'd been advocating that we move from traditional public schools directly to something resembling pilot schools, perhaps it's useful to think of the current balkanized charter landscape as the middle step in between the overly centralized OPSB of the past and a pragmatic pilot model that restores the voters of Orleans Parish to their rightful role as overseers of their own schools.
To that end, I found some of what was in this article to be extremely heartening given my low opinion of the new OPSB and the sober reconsideration I've been giving to some of these issues.
Later this week, several groups, including the Committee for a Better New Orleans/Metropolitan Area Committee, the Children's Defense Fund and the Urban League, are expected to announce a new coalition that will explore the future of public education in the city, including the question of long-term governance.
"Everything related to public education will be put on the table, " said Keith Twitchell, president of CBNO/MAC. He declined to release more details until the formal announcement, which is expected Thursday.
School Board President Woody Koppel said the board does not intend to "sit idly by" and wait for someone else to determine its fate.
"I believe we need an opportunity, as a community, to openly govern our schools, " he said. "I think that people want to have schools that are run by people who live near them."
It's going to be messy, but hopefully hitting rock bottom this past fall will force us to figure out where the path upward is.
--I've also been sitting on some really dynamite stuff in regard to how the federal stimulus package touches New Orleans schools but it's all still raw information. I've been really busy but hopefully by next week I'll have something to publish for everyone about that.