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Former NOLA school leader: Georgia did right thing

UPDATE Friday: This blog generated a lot of reader questions, which Paul Vallas answers today in a new blog entry.

Back to original blog:

Paul Vallas served as superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District from 2007-2011. He is now a consultant with DSI Education, headquartered in Chicago.

The Louisiana district is the model for the Opportunity School District proposed by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. Deal's plan won the approval of the Georgia House today.

Thanks to Mr. Vallas for agreeing to write this piece for the AJC and then turning it around in less than 24 hours after the House moved up the debate and vote by two days.

By Paul Vallas

Leading a state takeover school district is an exciting challenge. It is literally working to transform a system that, if left to the status quo, would continue to harm children. I can think of few greater services to society.

With today's passage of Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District initiative by the Georgia House, the conversation naturally turns to the state’s role in public education going forward, and why a state takeover district is needed.

As a threshold issue, state education agencies or departments of education have historically been organized around compliance functions. They ensure school districts are meeting federal mandates, such as the provision of special education programs and other spending requirements.

They manage funding streams, aggregate data, set standards and publish performance reports. State education agencies are not school improvement organizations or innovators, nor do they generally have unilateral authority to intervene in schools that are chronically failing their communities.

However, state education agencies are now being tasked with assuming more responsibility for driving education improvement. Creating a state takeover district led by a strong public education administrator is a natural and appropriate vehicle to execute these new responsibilities.

As the superintendent of the Recovery School District of Louisiana in the tumultuous post-Katrina years, I approached the RSD as a model for transformation. We built the RSD’s capacity to support both traditional and charter schools by structuring it as a “school improvement organization.” Our underlying school improvement strategy was based on three premises.

•First, if schools cannot be permitted to fail our children indefinitely, and morally they cannot, then developing a competent intervention process to transform failing schools is paramount.

•Second, we accepted as fact that certain essential practices are present in all high performing schools whether traditional, private or charter schools. When those essential practices are faithfully implemented, high-performing schools begin to emerge, regardless of socio-economic demographics or management model.

•And, third, once best practice education models and model schools are identified, do not reinvent the wheel. Tailor the successful models to the local culture and replicate the proven core educational and operational principles. The RSD strategy works like any strategy, occasionally needing tweaks and adjustments as it strives for constantly improved performance.

Anti-reform naysayers “cherry pick” statistics in stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the RSD has dramatically changed the education landscape in Louisiana, and in New Orleans in particular.

Yet, the RSD is better serving the education needs of underprivileged, minority children there than perhaps at anytime in history. Parents now have unprecedented choices for their children’s education. Any child in New Orleans can apply to any RSD school and the schools must accept all students until all seats are filled.

Of course, it shouldn’t take a natural disaster like the failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina to rectify manmade failures.

Gov. Deal recognizes this, in proposing the Opportunity School District as a “last resort” option for Georgia’s school students who are subjected to school boards and administrators who cannot overcome the challenges that result in persistently substandard schools.

Wealthy families vote with their feet, moving their children to private schools. Lower and even many middle-income families do not have this luxury. Thus, the Opportunity School District should be viewed through the lens of halting grave inequities rather than “usurping control.” The state must also do its part to build trust in that mission.

Georgia is now presented with an opportunity to stop the dogged failure of its lowest performing schools, and thanks to the lessons of the RSD, drafters of the final bill can consider proven strategies for transformation. If the architects of the Opportunity School District absorb the real lessons of the RSD strategy, the needle will move.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.