This article originally appeared in the October 11th issue of New Orleans CityBusiness.
by Patrick Dobard, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans
This election season, candidates for state and local government are talking about education. That’s always a good thing. And because of this, in New Orleans, they’re also talking about Act 91. Preserving this act is crucial for our system of public schools. In a growing sea of misinformation, it is important to understand why: Act 91 preserves local control of our schools. It also gives them the autonomy they need to continue to improve while holding them accountable for meeting clear standards of success.
Act 91 went into effect a year ago. It directed that the schools operated by the state’s Recovery School District (RSD) fully return to local control under the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), after more than a decade of RSD oversight. I led the Recovery School District for five years; in that role, I was proud to help oversee many of our city’s public schools as they stabilized in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and set on a path toward improvement. But by 2018, it was time that New Orleans’ schools were unified under a local, elected school board.
The time of joint RSD and OPSB oversight of New Orleans’ schools was one of marked progress. Since 2004, we have seen the citywide graduation rate rise from 54% to 78% and the college entry rate rise from 37% to 60%. These shifts were the result of the hard work of many — students and teachers above all. The progress stemmed from the fact that RSD and OPSB allowed schools the autonomy to innovate and lead to their best ability, while holding them accountable to high academic standards. A recent study from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans found that this combination of accountability and new school authorization drove much of the improvement in school quality.
The reuniting of schools under local control, called Unification, through Act 91, has been successful because it preserved what worked in that prior system while setting schools up for even greater success. It merged oversight of the prior RSD and OPSB schools, and codified provisions for equity, parent choice, autonomy for schools, and accountability.
Act 91 therefore maintained the immense potential of our city’s system of schools. And over the past year, our district leadership has been a strong guiding force. NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr., has made sure to give schools the freedom to lead while holding them accountable if students are not being served well. He made the hard, necessary decision to close schools that were consistently underperforming and that repeatedly failed to comply with state charter laws. At the same time, he expanded access to high-quality schools that have been in high demand
Act 91 allows our schools to continue to innovate based on what’s best for their students. For example, by giving public schools the flexibility to create their own program design, New Orleans now has a wide array of open-enrollment educational options, including Montessori schools, a classical curriculum school, a technology career pathway school, an early college academy, language immersion schools, and more. We also have powerful options for students with different learning needs, including a full-day post-secondary program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities and autism, and a therapeutic day program that merges academics with therapeutic, clinical, and medical services.
The critical framework established in Act 91 allows schools and the superintendent’s team to work together, alongside other local collaborators. In the past year alone, this collaboration has resulted in important system-wide shifts, including directing more money to the hardest-to-serve students and revising enrollment policies to facilitate greater access to neighborhood schools.
We owe the success of this bill to many people. Local advocates spoke up for what students deserved. A bipartisan group of legislators carried the bill to unanimous support in the Louisiana State Senate. Educators are working hard each day within the system it makes possible.
As we prepare for elections this fall, legislators and voters alike should remember the importance of these efforts. And as the school year gets well underway, we owe it to our students to continue to preserve these structures. New Orleans’ local leadership should oversee our schools, and those schools should be given autonomy, since they know their own students best. With Act 91 in place, we can focus on entering the next phase of our system’s progress—one marked by collaboration, community engagement, and excellence.