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Opinion: New Orleans is model of oversight, accountability, and cooperation

Peter Cook is a former teacher and administrator who worked in New Orleans public schools both before and after Hurricane Katrina. He now works as a consultant helping districts transform their organizations to better serve the needs of low-income students. You can find him on Twitter: @petercook.

He wrote this piece in response to an essay last week on the blog by Tulane professor J. Celeste Lay

By Peter Cook

Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, supporters and critics of the Governor Deal’s plan to create an “Opportunity School District” have looked to the Recovery School District in New Orleans to bolster their arguments.

The most recent critic to drag the RSD through the mud is J. Celeste Lay , an associate professor of political science at Tulane University, who has never worked in a New Orleans public school.

Her column on the AJC Get Schooled blog reflects that fact and so distorted the situation in New Orleans that the record needs to be set straight.

First of all, Lay claimed that New Orleans’ decentralized charter network of charter schools is a “free market system” where competition will lead to higher academic achievement.

Fortunately, that’s not how our school system works.

As Michael Stone, co-CEO of New Schools for New Orleans recently  noted in an interview, “I don’t think I know a single person working in public education in New Orleans who would say that competition for students will drive quality.”

On the contrary, it’s not market mechanisms, but strong oversight, accountability, and cooperation that have driven improvement in New Orleans’ public schools.

Lay also attempted to portray New Orleans’ charter schools as a hotbed of nefarious behavior, making vague accusations of nepotism, embezzlement, and ethics breaches. The reality is far different.

Yes, there have been isolated cases of individuals and schools that have bent, and in some cases, broken the law, and they have been held accountable for it. However, the overwhelming majority of schools and educators in New Orleans are in it for the right reason -- to expand the life opportunities of students, most of whom come from low-income families.

Lay further stated that New Orleans’ CMOs are profit-seeking businesses that “charge schools 15-20 percent” of their revenue. The claim is so far from the truth as to be embarrassing, since Professor Lay apparently doesn’t realize that the CMOs in New Orleans are all non-profit organizations.

Moreover, while she points out that the principal at her nearby charter school makes over $300,000 per year, she omits that the school in question was never taken over by the RSD. Also left unmentioned is the fact that the school has an exclusive agreement with Tulane to admit the children of professors like herself.

Finally, Lay’s average ACT score data is wrong. The average ACT score in the RSD’s non-alternative  high schools last year was 16.5 , up from 14.4 in 2004-05. While we admittedly still have a long way to go in ensuring that all students graduate college-ready, Lay of course leaves out the statistics that show we’re on the right track:

Academic performance has risen higher in the Recovery School District than any other district in Louisiana over the past decade

•In 2005, 62% of New Orleans students attended a failing school; today that number has dropped to 7%

•Between 2005 and 2014, the graduation rate in New Orleans went from 54% to 73%, and college enrollment went from 45% to 58%

•African-American and special needs students in New Orleans now outperform their peers across Louisiana; in fact, the graduation rate of special needs students in New Orleans exceeds the statewide average by a solid 11%

Now that Gov. Nathan Deal’s bill to create an “Opportunity School District” has worked its way through the Legislature, Georgians should continue to have a healthy and vigorous debate about the pros and cons of the proposed state takeover district.

To be sure, the RSD’s success in the Big Easy is no guarantee it will work for Georgia. And while I certainly encourage Georgians to look to New Orleans for lessons from our school reforms, just be sure to distinguish honest facts from misinformation.



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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.