Art of the hands-off ‘takeover’

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana’s template for turning around chronically failing schools does, strictly speaking, involve a state takeover. But what happens after the intervention is something different altogether.

“Takeover” conjures images of state bureaucrats filing in the schoolhouse door, carrying briefcases stuffed with plans for micromanagement. John White, Louisiana’s schools superintendent knows all about that kind of takeover, because he lived through one in Jersey City, N.J., more than 20 years ago.

Up there, he told a delegation from Georgia studying Louisiana’s Recovery School District last week, the number of principals and bureaucrats doubled. What Louisiana is doing — and what Gov. Nathan Deal wants Georgia to do as well — “is so different from a state takeover,” White said.

In New Orleans, the idea is for the state to identify perennially low-performing schools and match them up with new operators (whether charter-school operators or otherwise). Then the state stands back, lets that new operator get to work, and holds it accountable for its results.

The person specifically empowered in this arrangement is the school’s principal, whether that person is held over from the previous regime or replaced. The idea is to give put more authority into the principal’s hands, especially over funding, curriculum and instruction, and hiring and firing staff.

Crucial decision-making power is moved from the central office to the school. Not a state agency.

At Esperanza Charter School, principal Nicole Saulny made it clear her authority manifests itself in many ways. When new children show up with special needs or language challenges (60 percent of the school’s students are Hispanic; almost half of its kindergartners don’t speak English when they show up), Saulny moves money around to make things work. When dentistry students from LSU volunteer to work on kids’ mouths, Saulny doesn’t need permission from a central-office bureaucrat to say yes.

“That’s the good thing about being a charter,” she said. “I don’t have to go through a bunch of red tape. I’ve got the authority to do what I need for my kids.” Her school has gone from a rating of D-minus to a B since she arrived three years ago.

One of the Georgians on the trip asked why Louisiana doesn’t give all public schools the same autonomy. Recovery School District superintendent Patrick Dobard said school districts can have the autonomy if they’ll accept the same kind of accountability his schools face. But, he quickly added, no district has accepted that offer.

Yet, accountability is critical to this reform model, said Paul Pastorek, a past state schools superintendent in Louisiana.

“You give this new operator … some running room, but not a lot of running room,” he said, adding that the state has to make one thing clear: “If you don’t make progress, we’ll replace you. And we’ll replace and replace until we get it right.”

If all this sounds like an infringement on local control, Pastorek argued local districts can’t be allowed to tolerate failure indefinitely. In any case, White said, the Louisiana model moves authority toward the community, not away from it.

“In New Orleans, we have schools run by educators that are chosen by parents,” White said. “It’s the most local of school systems that exists.”