Just as the presidential election offers voters a clear choice between two very different views of which direction our country should take in the coming years, the elections for six of seven seats on the Orleans Parish School Board likewise present local voters with a choice between competing views on the future of public education in New Orleans.
Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has been the epicenter of educational innovation in public schools. Many of those innovations have worked, or at least led to incremental improvements in student achievement and public confidence. More than anything else, post-Katrina changes in local public schools have put the charter school movement at the forefront of "education reform," locally and nationally.
I generally like the idea of charters, but I think often they are misunderstood. The most important thing to know about them is that they are not a panacea. If used wisely and run properly, they can be part of a larger, multifaceted solution to what ails local public schools. But they are not and never will be a silver bullet.
That's because charter schools are essentially an alternative governance model, pure and simple. Instead of the traditional "centralized" governance model, in which all decisions are made by one board and filtered down to constituent schools, charter schools each have their own individual, somewhat independent board — and mission. I say "somewhat independent" because charters are still public schools and thus, if set up properly, are still accountable to an elected board (either the local school board or the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, BESE).
Governance is important, but changes in governance don't automatically produce improvements in the classroom — and what goes on in the classroom is what matters most when it comes to improving educational outcomes.
Charter opponents say the movement is part of an effort to "privatize" public education, but that's not true. Charter schools remain public schools; they just don't necessarily remain under the daily control of elected school boards. Instead, they are run by either nonprofit or for-profit boards consisting of local directors, many of whom come from the business and civic community.
I find it ironic that charter opponents object to business folks getting so deeply involved in public education. Decades ago, there was a local push to get the business community more involved in public schools via the "adopt a school" program. Charters represent an excellent way for business folks to "adopt" a public school by serving on a volunteer charter board. I guess some just want businesses to "adopt" public schools in the sense of paying for them, but not so much in the sense of having a say in how they operate.
To me, anything that gets local folks productively invested in public schools is a good thing. Obviously there have to be limitations, safeguards and standards, but beyond that I think it's awesome that business and civic leaders are donating their time, efforts and resources to public schools.
While all this may suggest that charters are wonderful, I hasten to point out — again — that charters are not a silver bullet. Many schools still excel in the traditional "central governance" model. And some charters have failed.
Overall, part of the debate that school board candidates are having — and voters should be following closely — is the proper role of charters in the overall public education framework.
Another major issue is the question of returning once-failed local schools to the jurisdiction of the local school board. When the Recovery School District (RSD) was put in charge of more than 100 failed local schools after Katrina, it was directed to return governance to the local board after five years. That law later was changed to extend the RSD's hold on local schools (most of which are charters), but the RSD was never intended to be a permanent replacement for the local board.
In the next four years, a number of schools in the RSD system could revert to local control. The board also is likely to hire a new superintendent.
These are huge decisions, and they make this year's school board elections among the most important on the Nov. 6 ballot.