Sometimes politics makes one too clever by half, as is the case with a bill to alter the governance structure of the East Baton Rouge Parish School District. But also sometimes the limits of politics forces very imperfect solutions.
While several bills to address the troubled district, which as of thelatest data ranked in the 23rd percentile in performance, got introduced into the Louisiana Legislature this session with actions such as carving out a new community school district and dividing the EBRPSD into four zones, the one with most traction so far is SB 636 by state Sen. Bodi White. It would decentralize many governance decisions to the school level, where principals would be responsible for recruiting and hiring personnel, would oversee curriculum, instruction methods, and professional development, and with district oversight be responsible for food services, transportation, custodial, health and a wide range of other services. Principals would operate under management contracts of up to five years and be subject to dismissal if they fail to meet performance goals spelled out in the written agreement. A community council would provide parental input.
It’s clear that, left to its own devices in its current form, the EBRPSD will continue to underserve children. Over the last several years, it has continued to hemorrhage students even as the parish population has grown and its performance has been stagnant, even as its per pupil spending (as of the latest data) has increased nearly 50 percent since the hurricane disasters of 2005, or the ninth highest of all, while having the twelfth highest per pupil spending. Despite these facts, the past and present leadership has taken a bifurcated approach as the district continues to sink: blame its ills on a lack of money but try to build political support among advantaged families by a “two Baton Rouges” tactic of creating programs to attract high performing students to make a few strong schools while ghettoizing the remainder.
That nonstarter has resulted in poor performance and thereby the creation of 21 charter schools within it. Overall, in the state the infusion of charter schools unquestionably has improved performance, confirmed by the most recent research that demonstrates, among other salutary results, children in charter schools over the course of a year end up in performance two months ahead of similar children in traditional schools. And perhaps that’s why, when reviewing the bill, its contents aren’t far off from being the charter school concept in different raiment. Many of the similar decentralization aspects currently afforded to charter schools in Louisiana also appear in this legislation.
But there is one crucial difference. With a charter school, the bureaucratic structure with its rules and regulations completely is shunted aside, while this bill would keep it intact. And it’s this very difference that allows charter schools to post their superior results over similarly-situated traditional schools. They don’t have to make personnel actions on the basis of civil service regulations or deal with teacher unions. They don’t have patronage and political pressures influencing staffing or programmatic decisions. They don’t have to conform to an attendance zone.
Yet the biggest impediment to not loosening the one-size-fits-all, government monopoly format by allowing these bureaucratic strictures to remain in place is the linchpins in this governance structure, the principals. Unlike the ones that run charter schools, iftestimony about this bill to the Senate Education Committee serves as any kind of guide, the fear too many of them evince over the prospect of taking on what the bill asks shows they lack the talent and desire to succeed. Unfortunately, too many are drones of the failing system, where, compared to charter schools, in heading up schools accountability is too tepid, creativity is too lacking, and management skills don’t translate well outside of the monopoly environment.
Perhaps after a few years of having this system in place the cream will rise to the top and more capable individuals will govern. However, it begs the question that to overcome this vitiating impact to bring better administration faster, why not simply make them all charter schools, or follow the Orleans Parish model of making all but the least deficient charter schools? The concept is so close already, yet that’s precisely why the bill’s sponsors eschew that extra step: because there is so much political opposition to charter schools by the education establishment, its fellow-traveling politicians, and ideologues wedded to the command-and-control model of education. Following that model, politically only possible because of the ravages of the hurricane disasters in Orleans that opened minds to better approaches, seems unlikely to appear as public policy at this juncture given the political strength of the education revanchists.
Thus, it may be that this charter school model imposed on the government monopoly structure is the maximally politically possible maneuver, and that despite the inherent difficulties of the hybrid, it may be thought to be better than letting things go on as they are. It’s a risky proposition, but considering the dire straits in which is the EBRPSD, perhaps worth taking.