Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Legislature OKs school takeover

Legislature OKs school takeover
Senate, House bills give control to state
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
By Laura Maggi
Capital bureau

BATON ROUGE -- Signaling the overwhelming frustration in the Legislature with the New Orleans school system, both the House and Senate voted Monday to approve Gov. Kathleen Blanco's proposal to shift responsibility for reopening and running most of the city schools to the state Department of Education.

The House went a step further, also approving a competing bill by Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, that calls for the state to take over every school in New Orleans.

Blanco has made the takeover of most New Orleans schools a priority during the legislative session that ends Nov. 22, winning wide support from legislators who have been increasingly unhappy in recent years with the system's poor academic performance and financial mismanagement. Sixty-eight of 117 schools in the system qualify as failing under the state's accountability program, while another 34 have school performance scores below the state average.

"We have a unique opportunity to have a true change," said Sen. Ann Duplessis, D-New Orleans, who sponsored Senate Bill 49, one version of Blanco's legislation, which would leave just about a dozen schools in the care of the Orleans Parish School Board. Some of those schools, which are the best in the city, have already been converted to charter schools by the School Board.

Both of Blanco's proposals were approved by large margins, with the Senate passing Duplessis' bill 34-4 and the House backing its version 89-16.

But Scalise argued it didn't make any sense to leave any school in the School Board's hands.

"There are about nine schools that have been left out here hanging that would be left to wither on the vine if we left them to a system that most of us agree is not able to provide quality education," he said. Scalise's legislation, House Bill 93, was approved by a 67-36 vote.

No public schools have reopened in Orleans Parish since Hurricane Katrina. Milestone SABIS Academy and the James Singleton Charter School, both Uptown charter schools and so not under School Board control, reopened Monday. A group of five recently chartered schools in Algiers are slated to open in mid-December to serve children from all over the city. Other charter schools, such as schools with selective admissions such as Benjamin Franklin High and Lusher School, could open in January.

If either proposal becomes law, the state would largely be in charge of deciding which schools to reopen as students come back to New Orleans. The bill was amended to affect only the Orleans Parish school system.

A vocal critic

The pockets of opposition to both proposals have come from different camps, including some who usually support efforts to revamp the New Orleans school system. Rep. Karen Carter, D-New Orleans, who has supported efforts to strip power from the Orleans School Board in the past, has criticized the timing of the bill when so many community members are scattered across the country.

Carter has argued that proponents should reach out to displaced citizens and then come back with a proposal, perhaps during the January special session.

Teachers unions have also complained that critics of the system aren't acknowledging the recent improvements in the New Orleans schools' test scores.

They also have decried the fact that the legislation would effectively strip teachers of their collective bargaining agreement with the School Board, which would normally guide which teachers would be hired back as schools are reopened.

In her remarks to the Senate, Duplessis exhorted her colleagues to put aside any concerns they have about issues raised by any "special interest" groups.

"I say it is time for the grown-ups to stop studying this issue and time for the grown-ups to take the test so our children can pass," Duplessis said. "This is not the method to address teacher pay issues and teacher collective bargaining issues."

In 'recovery'

After all the debates were over, Brenda Mitchell, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, said those remarks and the possibility that teachers will lose some of their contracted benefits sends a negative signal to educators, people the system will eventually need back.

"This sends a message to people that we represent: We don't care about what you have done so far," she said.

Blanco's legislation, Senate Bill 49 and House Bill 121, would strip the Orleans Parish School Board of its authority over the 102 schools with performance scores below the state average. The state Department of Education and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would be given the responsibility of running those schools.

Both proposals would give the state education department six months to come up with a plan for running the schools, although it could open schools earlier if necessary. State officials have said they would likely oversee some schools themselves, but would look for independent foundations or universities to run others.

The legislation would move the substandard schools into a "recovery district" run by the state. This recovery district for failing schools was approved by the voters through a constitutional amendment several years ago.

Because this district was created for poor-performing schools, it might be unconstitutional for all New Orleans schools -- even those that are doing well as directed under Scalise's bill -- to be moved into recovery district, said House Education Committee Chairman Carl Crane, R-Baton Rouge.

With both the House and Senate passing versions of Blanco's proposal, it will be up to legislative staff to decide whether the language is similar enough that they are duplicates. If so, that means just one chamber would need to approve a version of the bill before it could be sent to the governor for her signature. If not, the bills will have to continue through the opposite side's committees, as well as be approved by both floors.

Scalise's House Bill 93 heads to the Senate Education Committee. If the proposal eventually wins the favor of the whole Senate, Blanco could decide to go with the alternative proposal to take over all the schools or to veto it.

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Laura Maggi can be reached at or (225) 342-5590.

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