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PAR Says Don’t Pull Plug on the RSD

The Recovery School District (RSD), responsible for rebuilding and reforming New Orleans’ failing public schools, has overcome numerous obstacles. Although progress has been slower than hoped for or expected, reforms are under way. Current efforts to dismantle the RSD and return management of New Orleans schools to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) are misguided.

In 2003, 60 percent of Louisiana voters approved the constitutional amendment that created the Recovery School District. This vote allowed the state to take control of failing schools and manage them under the supervision of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). Prior to that time, BESE’s only option for sanctioning a poorly-performing school was to cut funding to the district as a whole.

During the 2005 post-Katrina special session, the Legislature moved 107 “failing” and “low performing” schools under the purview of the RSD. Because the Legislature could not move all schools without another Constitutional amendment, the OPSB retained control of the five highest performing schools. New Orleans teacher unions, the OPSB and certain legislators opposed the move. Opponents of the RSD claim it is run mainly by “outsiders” who are not able to effectively manage the New Orleans schools. There is mounting pressure on legislators to return the 107 schools to the control of the OPSB.

The RSD took over schools from the worst performing school system in Louisiana, perhaps in the entire nation. That system had lost $55 million to waste, fraud and incompetence. Two dozen employees had been indicted on various charges of misconduct.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita dealt New Orleans such a massive blow that much of the district was out of operation for 12 months. Many school facilities still cannot be re-opened due to severe damage and years of neglect. With a lack of facilities, teachers and internal staff, the RSD struggled to supply the most basic of provisions, from hot lunches to textbooks. The void of affordable housing for teachers, student-security clashes, teacher assaults and the increasing crime rate exacerbated the situation. At one point, hundreds of students sat in gymnasiums throughout the school day due to teacher shortages while hundreds of others sat on lists waiting to be admitted.

The RSD has repaired, reopened and is managing 21 public schools and 17 charters. The OPSB is managing five public schools and 12 charters. The RSD has embraced the charter school concept as the cornerstone of its overall reform effort. The new model provides smaller classes, better teacher pay, and more competition in that students can choose which school they will attend. The RSD has provided new books and classroom supplies and has implemented a comprehensive reading program in all its schools. It also has established a central office and registration center in the slowly-recovering Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The RSD now has more than 9,000 students enrolled and 558 teachers.

Whether another entity would have done a better job than the RSD is a question that cannot be fairly answered. Comparing the RSD’s efforts to those of the current OPSB would not be reasonable. There is a vast difference between rebuilding a system for 107 failing or low-performing schools that have been mismanaged for years, and retaining control over five high-performing schools. The RSD has accepted a daunting situation and has progressed toward the goal of providing stable, quality education for the students of New Orleans. It is more accurate to fault the RSD’s inadequate communication strategies and unrealistic timeline than its management of the fledgling system.

Only time will tell if the present RSD schools will out-perform their predecessors. The first performance data is to be released in Summer 2007. The Governor has declared an appropriate opposition to dismantling the RSD. Her challenge now is to lay the full force of her administration behind the RSD and its’ efforts to ensure success.

To pull the plug on the RSD’s work at this stage would waste an opportunity to fortify the schools of New Orleans with solid educational and management practices. Further, dismantling the RSD would destroy the monumental charter experiment now underway. The nation is watching. Give the RSD time to succeed.

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