What We Talk About When We Talk About School Governance in New Orleans

by Adam Hawf, former Assistant Superintendent of Schools for the Orleans Parish School Board in New Orleans, La

In the weeks since the unification of schools, I have been reflecting on the governance of public schools in New Orleans. Almost everyone agrees that governance is important and the research is clear that changes in governance have spurred improvements in educational outcomes in New Orleans over the last fifteen years. But recently, many thoughtful people have asked whether the time has come to shift our focus away from governance now that unification is complete and our system is almost entirely charter schools.

These questions have spurred me to ask my own questions: What is governance and why does it matter for public education in New Orleans? Perhaps by exploring the first question we can shed some light on the second.

Governance is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the manner in which something is governed or regulated; method of management, system of regulation;” and also “the action or fact of governing a nation, a person, an activity, one’s desires.”

The first definition relates to the the system we have created in New Orleans from the initial days of the state’s Recovery School District to the recent unification of public charter schools under our locally elected school board. This governance is clear: every four years, we elect seven school board members who hire and oversee the superintendent. These same board members create and uphold the policies that shape our systems, including the standards for performance and compliance to which charter schools are held.

This type of governance has been our major focus in New Orleans over the last fifteen years: who manages the schools (non-profit organizations), who sets the standards for school performance and compliance (first the State Superintendent and the state board, now the Orleans Parish Superintendent and the local board), and who is responsible for fulfilling the critical functions of citywide resource management and school oversight (first the Recovery School District, now the local school district).

As a city, and as a system, we have successfully reimagined the local district as a resource manager and regulator of independent schools rather than a direct provider of educational service. Moreover, the state has transitioned from a deeply embedded local actor to a more distant provider of regulation and support for both the local district and the many dozen independent charter schools in New Orleans.

While the efforts of the last fifteen years have been effective in engaging civic leaders in the work of public education through volunteer charter school board service, we have also seen schools falter due to inadequate governance. In many cases, charter school board members have been recruited by founding school leaders and struggled to transition from cheerleading to governing; and, similarly, the lack of high-quality options across the city has sometimes offset the power of families to hold schools accountable by voting with their feet. This connects to the second definition of governance — “the action or fact of governing a nation, a person, an activity, one’s desires” — not system design, but the day-to-day reality of our schools.

If our system is to sustain itself over time, we must address the shortcomings in our system of charter boards with the same fervor we used to address the shortcomings in our local elected board and school district. This is the governance work of the future and in this regard, governance is as important for New Orleans today as it was fifteen years ago:

  • We must commit to recruiting and training a new generation of charter school board members — so that all of the several dozen non-profit organizations governing schools in our city have strong and diverse boards full of engaged, courageous people;
  • We must hold our boards accountable for their stewardship of the public trust — accessibility, transparency, inclusion, and responsiveness to the communities in which their schools operate and the families who are their constituents; and
  • We must study and celebrate those charter boards who succeed in holding their executive leaders, their elected school board representatives, and themselves accountable to high expectations without crossing the line from governance into management.

This work will not be easy — especially when you consider that our system requires us to have hundreds of charter board members active in New Orleans — but it is essential. If we don’t take action, our system will suffer as the public and elected officials pressure our local school board to step into the gaps created by those charter school boards which fail to govern themselves.

Most notably, we have a huge opportunity ahead of us. Once more, New Orleans can prove to the rest of the country what is possible in public education. If we can make our charter school boards work at scale, we will have the most robust and responsive system of public school governance in America.