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Finally Paying Attention

We need to start asking, "What is working in Orleans Parish public schools?"

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Last week, some Orleans Parish School Board members acted hastily and unprofessionally when they attempted to gather on short notice to consider Superintendent Anthony Amato's future. Their ostensible attempt to fire Amato failed, but many questions remain. Did the board have a right to call a special meeting on such short notice? Was there a secret meeting to decide Amato's fate? How valid are recently expressed concerns about Amato's performance? As the drama unfolded, state lawmakers weighed in by passing a law that transfers vast amounts of authority from the board to Amato.

Amato is still relatively new to his job, but many consider him the best hope for turning the city's troubled public school system around. Board members gave him a B+ in a recent evaluation, but then some expressed concerns about his performance. Amato should now address those concerns -- not because he has been threatened with dismissal, but because he is responsible to the children and the parents of his district. Amato and board members also must start communicating openly and honestly with one another. That will not be easy in the current climate.

If Amato and some board members constantly step on each other's toes, maybe we need a better model for public school governance. That, no doubt, is the primary logic behind House Bill 1659, which transfers much of the board's control to the superintendent. Legislators, disgusted with the board's recent actions as well as decades of failure, approved the bill last week -- and Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed it into law. There is much to applaud in the new law, but we must be careful not to fix one problem by potentially creating another.

HB 1659, authored by Rep. Karen Carter, D-New Orleans, passed overwhelmingly because the school board has involved itself in too many matters that should be decided by the superintendent. In that respect, HB 1659 spells out a relationship that all districts -- not just those with failing schools -- should adopt. The superintendent should have "sole and exclusive authority Š for operation and management of the local system," as HB 1659 says. But, by also giving the superintendent sole and exclusive authority over policy, the new law takes a traditional -- and crucial -- role away from the board. Because school board members are elected, critics of the new law make a good point when they say that it goes too far in shifting policy-making authority from the board to the superintendent.

On the other hand, because of the sorry state of the current board -- and the promise that Amato embodies -- it's hard not to welcome the new law. While its broad scope has appeal right now, the new law disregards the strengths and weaknesses of whatever office-holders might be in place in the future. Consider for a moment the possibility of Morris Holmes enjoying this kind of power. Would anybody really want that? We suspect not. At best, HB 1659 appears to be a necessary evil at this point in time.

Ultimately, however, it is not the long-range solution to the ills of New Orleans' public schools.

Which brings us to the matter of a reasoned discussion of the future of local public schools. Too often, policymakers create long-range plans and then grow impatient, throw out everything, and start over. It's time for all of us to be tireless in finding ways to help educators in any way that we can -- and to be watchful, but patient.

In that spirit, we need to stop asking, "How can it get any worse?" and start asking "What is working in Orleans Parish?" Some schools within the district have made phenomenal progress. Take, for example, L.B. Landry High School, where two years ago only 6 percent of students read at or above their grade levels. Now 25 percent can. Carter G. Woodson Middle School also saw significant improvement in two years' time. Those schools' principals and teachers should be considered experts in school reform. How did they achieve that progress? What do they need to progress further? How can we replicate those successes in other schools?

We hope Amato will use his new authority to pair up local strengths with the district's weaknesses. Mayor Ray Nagin has offered administrative and financial management help to the district, which has failed on this front for years. Such a partnership should have narrowly defined goals and procedures -- but Amato (and the board) should not miss an opportunity to engage Nagin at his best. Colleges and state agencies likewise have expertise to lend. A good example is the new partnership with the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, which will use grant money from the U.S. Department of Education to provide graduate-level seminars on American history to more than 400 Orleans Parish teachers over the next three years. If there's one benefit from last week's tumult, it's this: New Orleans is finally paying attention to public education. We hope the public will remain engaged long enough to make a lasting difference.

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