From the outset, the Recovery School District (RSD) was steeped in controversy and locked in an uphill battle against monumental odds. Created by the Legislature in November 2005, less than 90 days after Hurricane Katrina washed away most of what remained of New Orleans' badly broken public schools system, the RSD was charged with taking over and turning around the system's -- and quite possibly the nation's -- worst public schools. The RSD has not even finished its first full academic year, but already there are signs that those who fought its creation may be lining up to shut the district down and return its schools to the Orleans Parish School Board -- the same board that created or tolerated the problems in the first place. That would be a serious mistake.
It is worth noting, over and over again, that the RSD is responsible for rebuilding and improving the very worst of our city's public schools -- those that didn't even measure up to the watered-down state average. More than 100 such "failing" and "low-performing" schools were largely in physical as well as instructional disrepair even before Katrina's floodwaters rendered most campuses unusable. The RSD thus has had the unenviable challenge of "fixing" schools that were broken in every way imaginable.
In the early stages, the RSD's mission and purpose inspired great hope. Its stated goal of opening as many charter schools as possible was greeted with tremendous support among parents as well as volunteers and institutions suddenly willing to lend a hand to the cause of public education. A number of nascent charter schools opened this year, and it is hoped that more will open in the months to come. But charter schools are not a panacea for what ails New Orleans' public education system. The mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, under the direction of Tulane President Dr. Scott Cowen, proposed a mix of charter and district-sponsored schools to address the diverse needs of our city's public school families. Accordingly, the RSD has granted some 17 charters to local educational groups and operates more than 20 public schools itself. There have been problems, some of them highly publicized, but at least with the RSD there are signs that the people in charge are sincerely trying to make things better.
Lest we forget, under the Orleans Parish School Board, millions of dollars were lost to waste, mismanagement, incompetence and outright theft. More than 20 school system employees have been indicted or have pleaded guilty to various charges of misconduct. To be fair, the problems of Orleans Parish public schools were decades in the making. But it is equally fair to say that the past and present school boards, which allowed the physical and financial mess to grow to its pre-Katrina state, were a big part of the problem. It would therefore be folly to return the most at-risk schools -- and the most at-risk students -- to school board control.
Even if Katrina had not struck a near deathblow to New Orleans, the RSD would face a daunting task in taking over operations at the city's 107 most under-performing schools. In the storm's aftermath, the district lacks adequate facilities, basic provisions, hot lunches and textbooks for students, sufficient numbers of qualified teachers (and many teachers, in turn, lack affordable housing) and appropriate levels of funding. On top of those problems, individual campuses have struggled with student discipline problems, crime and other social ills. Through it all, the RSD has struggled to remain focused on the bigger picture of hiring the best teachers and providing the best models for elementary and secondary schools.
Could things have been done better? Absolutely. Should the public demand significant improvements in the near future? Unquestionably. At the same time, let's not lose sight of the fact that the push for public educational improvements in New Orleans has fostered the largest, most intensive charter school experiment in American history. The whole world is watching. We owe it to the students and to ourselves to give this experiment a realistic chance to succeed. Let the Sun Shine In This Tuesday, March 13 -- during Sunshine Week -- the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on a package of bills that represents the biggest advance in open-government laws in years. The votes expected on the House floor include HR 1309, which would strengthen the way governmental agencies must respond to requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The FOIA reforms that Congress is considering are common sense ideas that are long overdue. They include giving requesters a tracking number to follow the status of their requests online or by phone, creating an ombudsman to help requesters, pressing agencies to resolve FOIA disputes without litigation, making agencies pay the legal costs when they improperly delay or deny requests, and strengthening agency reporting on their FOIA processing.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold hearings on its own FOIA reform legislation on Wednesday, March 14, the day after the House votes on HR 1309. The Senate bill is expected to be similar to the House bill.
These bills represent the first opportunity to reform the FOIA process in years, and we urge all our readers to contact senators and representatives in support of these important measures.