New Orleans is home to thousands of students, educators, and families who love their schools. At NSNO, we strive to deliver on the promise of an excellent public school for every child. We are proud of our education system, and most of all, we are proud of the children who learn and grow in it each day.
This week, the Louisiana Legislature’s Senate Education Committee will consider Senate Bill 404 (SB 404) by Senator Joseph Bouie, a bill that seeks to change our system significantly by taking away the guarantee of autonomy for New Orleans public schools.
Currently, our schools have freedom in areas like their curriculum, structure, and hiring, in exchange for being held to high standards of accountability for their students’ academic growth, finances, and operations.
We spoke to school and network leaders about what it would mean if, through SB 404, our system changed. Our leaders and their teams are devoted to their students and families above all else–their top priority is educating children, and changing our system wouldn’t change that goal.
Many of them told us, however, that it would make their work harder. It would hinder the innovation and creativity they’ve counted on to get things done swiftly to benefit their students. The Orleans Parish School Board echoed this by passing a resolution in opposition to the bill on Tuesday, April 26.
“At the end of the day, you can have great schools and do great things in any system,” explains Elizabeth Ostberg.
Ostberg is founder of the NET Charter High School, an alternative school, and CEO of Educators For Quality Alternatives (EQA), the network that runs it.
“But I think that the structure of New Orleans’ system has facilitated our work in a few ways.”
Ostberg says that the autonomy she’s afforded as a network leader, the accountability she’s held to meet through the district’s standards, and the ability to create a program that best meets her students’ needs have been crucial.
She explains that being able to make decisions without going through many layers of bureaucracy at a district-level means EQA can be more responsive to students’ needs. They launched a free daycare center, the NEST, for NET students who are parents, expanded beyond high school to work with eighth graders who were older than their peers, and created a construction class to expand students’ career options.
When they were creating these programs, Ostberg says, “we could do it pretty easily and quickly so that our students got the best supports ASAP.”
Often, she points out, because traditional districts have so many competing priorities within their scope, alternative schools–which often serve students who have dropped out, been expelled, or are older than the norm for their grade–get less focus and attention than they need.
In New Orleans’ school system, schools and networks have the autonomy to create a unique program–whether that’s an innovative alternative school, a Montessori program, a language-immersion campus, or a more traditional focus. This gives students and families options. A student who loves music might choose the school whose band they most admire. A student with their own child might need to attend a school, like the NET, with an on-site daycare and flexible hours.
In New Orleans’ system, says Ostberg, “we (EQA) get to be exclusively focused on alternative schools and can put all our energy, resources, and focus on these particular students. We aren’t trying to be everything for everyone, so we can just attract people who are strong, aligned, and want to be with our students,” Ostberg explains.
As she builds this team and holds this focus, Ostberg appreciates being held to account for strong results.
“The current accountability system is definitely not perfect, and certainly it does not capture everything that is important about schools and kids,” she says. But for her, it’s motivating. Schools and networks are carefully monitored by the local school board, which reviews metrics that include students’ progress toward academic goals, test scores, and graduation rates. If they are consistently not meeting standards, they are at risk of having to close. If closed, NET students would have top priority enrollment across the city to enroll elsewhere.
“As a school we HAVE to keep getting better every day; we can’t rest on our laurels or say things are ‘good enough,’ because if we do, we could lose the opportunity to keep working with our kids. We wouldn’t say that anyway…but the reality is that in systems without accountability, difficult work (like alternative schools) can go unexamined for too long, and kids suffer for it.”
Ashley Daniels Hall, CEO of Einstein Charter Schools, has also found that the autonomy of our district has allowed her to innovate around the specific needs of her school communities. Because Einstein’s schools have been enrolling larger numbers of students new to this country in recent years, many of whom speak Spanish, she’s invested in programs for English Language Learners (ELLs). Her network has focused on recruiting bilingual social workers and preparing robust classroom programming for students who are newcomers to this country.
“At Einstein, we are adapting to meet the needs of our growing Latino population,” says Daniels-Hall.
“Due to our being autonomous, we can allocate resources to a specific wraparound service, or we can allocate funding to specialized services for our ELL population.”
Daniels-Hall’s reflections on this system come not just from her experience as an educator and CMO leader, but from having been a student here. She went to Eleanor McMain Secondary School. She loved her education there, but she knew not every student was able to access it–at the time, McMain had specific entry requirements. Now it is open-enrollment, alongside all but two high schools in the NOLA-PS system. Daniels-Hall appreciates the push to have more consistency in high-quality education across the city alongside diversity in how schools provide it.
“I went to McMain, and that experience was very different from that experience at Fortier down the street. The graduation rates and the college-going rates looked very different. The goal now [in our system] is to really standardize expectations, that we want all children to graduate. But for all children to graduate, we have to provide choice and different experiences to get those children to the finish line.”
Our education leaders like Daniels-Hall and Ostberg are creative and responsive. If SB 404 passes, it would take away guarantees of this autonomy for school leaders, and open the door for more decisions being made by the district’s central office–removing decision-making power from those who know their students and families best.
Our school board, our superintendent, and their team manage areas where district-wide support can lead to greater equity and access, such as in enrollment, expulsion, and facilities. But when it comes to areas like staffing, programming, and schedules, our families, students, and community members shouldn’t have to go through district-level bureaucracy to have their voices heard. They should be able to bring issues they care about to the educators they know and work with every day.
Of course, we know that no district or structure is perfect. This is complex work. Schools nationwide need more resources than they have, and New Orleans’ are no exception. We agree with Senator Bouie that our children deserve the best possible schools. We believe, however, that when there are adjustments to be made, the locally-elected Orleans Parish School Board and schools themselves are best positioned to make them. They know our city’s children better than the state legislature.
And we are hopeful about our schools’ progress under the current system. In recent years, for instance, we’ve seen great trauma-informed, social emotional, athletic, language, arts, and music programs develop for students. Academic standards have risen, but our students are graduating and entering college at a significantly higher rate than they were in 2004. In a recent Cowen Institute poll, around half of parents rated our public schools an “A” or “B.” There is still work to do until our students have the educational opportunities they deserve, but we listen to the educators who tell us that changing our system will hinder, not help, their progress. We therefore oppose SB 404 and advocate for our children by taking a stand against it.