Site-based autonomy gives schools more control over personnel, curriculum and budget

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on the morning of August 29, 2005. The levee failure caused 80% of the city to flood and was the costliest natural disaster in United States history. It destroyed infrastructure and displaced large numbers of people, making widespread emergency measures a necessity. Of the 126 public schools in New Orleans only 16 escaped the storm relatively unaffected. Reforms made after the storm have transformed the New Orleans public education system, with the most notable of these changes dubbed the “charter school revolution.”

Charter schools are public schools and subject to many of the same federal and state rules and regulations that govern conventional public schools. They are also publicly funded. In the 2010-2011 school year two-thirds of charters were run by local organizations which manage only a single school. Schools run in this fashion are considered non-network or stand-alone charters. Charter schools may also be run by organizations called charter management organizations (CMO’s), which manage two or more schools. The best-known example of a CMO is KIPP. Lastly, charters may be operated by the local school district itself, but with more autonomy and freedom than a traditional public school.

Charter schools often have longer school days, which can be valuable when educating children who are already behind their peers at a young age. Greater freedom also gives charters more control over their curriculum design and facilitates the development of a unique school culture. Also, while traditional public school teachers are usually in a teacher’s union, charter school teachers usually are not. This makes it easier to replace underperforming teachers, a major challenge at traditional public school.

Source: Cowen Institute, 2012

Charters have been around since the early 1990’s and contrary to popular belief, charter schools existed in Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina. The state passed its first charter school law in 1995. It was a pilot program where up to 8 school districts could volunteer to participate. The intent of the law was to authorize the “creation of innovative kinds of independent public schools” with “a means for all persons with valid ideas and motivation to participate in the experiment.”  

After Katrina the Recovery School District (RSD) operations were expanded. Created in 2003, the RSD takes over failing or underperforming schools and can either close the school, directly operate it, or choose to charter it. Five New Orleans schools were already in the RSD when Katrina hit, but afterwards there was a total overhaul. 107 schools were handed over to the RSD and currently there are 112 schools under the RSD control.

Before Katrina, New Orleans public schools were plagued by corruption, financial mismanagement, FBI probes, and poor academic performance. They were consistently among the worst schools in the state. For example, in 2005 Orleans Parish ranked 67 out of 68 Louisiana parishes for student achievement. 70% and 74% of 8th graders weren’t proficient in Math or English, respectively. Furthermore, 77% of students were attending failing schools.

This year New Orleans RSD schools were first in student growth, increasing 6 percentage points in the number of students meeting the state proficiency goal. From 2000 to 2013 New Orleans schools have closed the student performance gap from 26 percentage points to just 6 percentage points.

Percent of Students Scoring Basic or Above, 2000 – 2013


Additionally, since the charter school revolution in New Orleans the number of students attending failing schools has fallen to 32% and ACT scores are improving faster than state and national scores. Lastly, the percentage of students who entered 9th grade together and graduated in 4 years, known as the cohort graduation rate, has increased from 57% in 2008 to 78% in 2012.


Cohort Graduation Rate


What has accounted for the success of charter schools? According to Veronica Brooks, Policy Director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools,“There is nothing magical about being a charter school. What is important are the innovations charters are focusing on.” One of the most important innovations is site-based autonomy. Mickey Landry, Executive Director of the Choice Foundation in New Orleans, says site-based autonomy is simply the ability to manage school operations on-site. For Brooks, site-based autonomy is “all about letting schools be autonomous yet accountable. It is less about input and more about outcome.” Specifically, it allows for control of the budget, meaning more freedom to make decisions about the allocation of resources. Additionally, site-based autonomy gives individual schools greater authority over the hiring and firing of teachers.

With greater control of the budget, charter schools are able to apply resources to their most critical needs. For example, if the most critical need is infrastructure, a greater portion of the budget can go towards infrastructure. This contrasts greatly with traditional public school districts where schools are told what to do from a central office. Often, a central office may develop a Professional Development Plan containing initiatives like “Curb School Violence” and apply it to all schools, overlooking the diversity and differing needs among schools. It is a one-size-fits-all approach and often fails to address the unique needs of individual schools.

Often, charter schools can opt out of the state teacher retirement system and create their own retirement and benefit plans for school employees. This is proving to be a major advantage for New Orleans charters, as they are not saddled with the obligations incurred by traditional public schools. Unfunded pension liabilities are making it difficult for conventional public schools to find enough money for other needs, including keeping enough teachers in the classroom. But charters that opt out of the state pension can spend less on pension and benefits while offering higher salaries and/or hiring more teachers.

Charters are also able to develop their own specific culture and institutions. Because they aren’t told what to do from a central office there is more local control over personnel. Traditional public schools often have employees that are only there because of transfers or seniority. In other words, these teachers may have no attachment to the particular mission of the charter school.

Before 2010, Louisiana’s teacher tenure rules made it extremely difficult to fire a union teacher based on poor academic performance. Further, tenure rules have made the process of firing a union worker extremely costly. For example, in New York City it would take years for a dismissal case to be heard and cost about $250,000 per employee. The Los Angeles Unified School District spent $3.5 million to try and fire just 7 teachers.  An argument in favor of tenure is that it guarantees “due process” to teachers. By contrast, charter school employees are not unionized. Instead, they are “at will” employees on a contract with the school. But this does not mean that charter school employees can be arbitrarily fired. A “just cause” to fire someone still needs to exist.

Unlike pre-Katrina, accountability now exists in the New Orleans school system. Charters are subject to “third- and fifth-year review in the areas of student, financial, and legal and contractual performance” and BESE then makes “recommendations for extensions and renewals based on data in those same areas.”  The school must achieve set goals and see growth in terms of increased academic performance. Otherwise, the state may either revoke a school’s charter or put it under different management. Two charters were revoked in 2011, and in 2012 this grew to four.

Another factor that is driving the success of charter schools is merit based pay. Schools can decide to reward all teachers for overall improvement or reward a single teacher. According to Brigitte Nieland of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), “It is not just about getting rid of the bad teacher but also rewards to those that go the extra mile.”

Parental choice is another key ingredient in the success of New Orleans schools. Families are not “zoned into” specific schools, so parents have the freedom to choose a school that best suits the needs of their child. If parents are unhappy with their child’s progress, they may move them to another school. This, in effect, acts as a check on low-performing schools. Rayne Martin, Executive Director of Stand for Children, believes that parents in New Orleans have better knowledge about their school options than other parents in the state. In addition to word-of-mouth, resources such as are available to parents looking to choose and compare schools for their children. A recent Schools Expo also helped parents learn about school choice in New Orleans.

Charter schools are not without their critics. Naysayers argue that shutting down a charter school is easy in theory but not in practice. It can prove to be difficult when charter school organizations resist closure. But Brooks believes Louisiana is doing a fairly good job of shutting down failing charters. In other words, Louisiana does have an accountability system where poor performers are shut down, something it did not have in the past.

Critics also claim that the freedom to replace allegedly bad teachers is overrated. These critics argue that the real culprits in poor academic performance are non-school factors such as poverty or a lack of family stability. But charter school supporters point out that children from challenging environments are able to succeed. Furthermore, expectations should not be lowered for them. Instead, schools need the freedom to find ways to address the needs of their students. This could include more intensive instruction, longer school days and other innovations that traditional public schools have resisted.

The most significant development in New Orleans after Katrina is the charter school revolution. Schools have increased autonomy, parents have more choice and academic performance is improving. This is the most important charter movement in the country, with 80% of New Orleans public school students in charter schools. The success of this experiment is something other districts around the country have noted, and the number of charters continues to increase. But the strength of the public school education establishment makes it difficult for other cities to replicate anything on this scale, making it unlikely that they will experience the kind of improvement that is taking place in New Orleans.