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New Orleans Superintendent Leaving Legacy of Charter School Expansion

July 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, the superintendent brought in to revive New Orleans' troubled public schools is bidding farewell after turning many of the schools into charters. Before his departure, Paul Vallas speaks with John Merrow about where things stand with the city's school reform efforts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, the man hired to overhaul New Orleans’ devastated schools is packing his bags. Superintendent Paul Vallas has been at it for three years.

The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has been tracking his efforts, and tonight wraps up that story.

JOHN MERROW: When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, its waters washed away many of New Orleans schools, and, with them, a school system burdened by years of academic failure, mismanagement and corruption.

The state seized control of most of the city schools. The federal government sent millions in disaster relief funds. In New Orleans, it was a rare chance to build a new school system from the ground up.


JOHN MERROW: For Paul Vallas, the veteran superintendent Louisiana hired in 2007 to do the job, the pressure was on.

PAUL VALLAS, superintendent, Recovery School District of Louisiana: We need to move now. We need to start building buildings now. We need to modernize those classrooms now.

JOHN MERROW: Almost from the time he arrived in New Orleans, Paul Vallas began making promises, talking publicly about all the big changes he intended to make in the schools. Well, it’s been three years. Time for Paul Vallas’ report card.

PAUL PASTOREK, Louisiana State Superintendent of Education: I give Paul very high marks.

JOHN MERROW: State Superintendent Paul Pastorek hired Paul Vallas.

PAUL PASTOREK: If you would tell people five years ago what is happening today, no one would have believed it was possible.


PAUL VALLAS: We went up in every grade in every subject. And we outperformed everyone else in growth. Congratulations.


JOHN MERROW: Every year Paul Vallas has been in New Orleans, test scores have improved. Although the city continues to score far below students statewide, the gains are among the highest in Louisiana.

Vallas credits a host of innovations, including new school buildings, curriculum and technology…

WOMAN: We’re going to make a PowerPoint presentation.

JOHN MERROW: … an extended school day and year, and hundreds of young idealistic teachers recruited from the nation’s top colleges.

WOMAN: If we have got four exact copies, Courtney, what do you think that is, mitosis or meiosis?

PAUL VALLAS: The vast majority of schools have improved. And a large number of schools have shown significant improvement. And I think we have had a lot of success. We have really created a model district.

WOMAN: Is Walter here today?

MAN: No.

JOHN MERROW: Not all of Vallas’ reforms have been successful.

WOMAN: Kevin — where is Kevin?

JOHN MERROW: Despite a new truancy task force, attendance in many classes remains low.

WOMAN: This is physical science. And I have 26 students on my roster, but on any given day, I can expect about 17.

JOHN MERROW: A jobs program promised to high school juniors and seniors reached a fraction of students. And after-school courses to help students catch up and graduate on time has struggled to fill seats.

MAN: All right. Yesterday, you had to make four observations about four different organisms that you saw in and around the garden.

JOHN MERROW: Another criticism, many of Vallas’ new teachers have come from programs like Teach For America, which requires only a two-year commitment. Critics contend that two years is not long enough to have a lasting impact.

PAUL VALLAS: Turnover doesn’t bother me at all. I submit to you that part of the problem in education is, there is not enough turnover. I’m very comfortable. I’m running a district where half of my teachers are the university elites and the college elites from programs like Teach For America, and the other half of my teachers veteran teachers. I think there’s a very healthy balance.

JOHN MERROW: But the largest and most controversial of Vallas’ changes is his embrace of charter schools, which, although publicly funded, have limited government oversight.

Under Vallas’ leadership, charters have exploded. Before Katrina, just 2 percent of New Orleans schools were charters. By next year, two-thirds will be. No other school system in the country has tried charter schools on this scale.

PAUL VALLAS: Well, I am a believer in schools having the freedom and autonomy to make decisions that are in the best interest of the children. And so I support charter schools because charter schools are a vehicle for achieving that type of freedom.

JOHN MERROW: At charter schools like Sophie B. Wright, the principal calls the shots.

SHARON CLARK, principal, Sophie B. Wright Charter School: I make sure instruction is in place and it’s effective and it is aligned with the state standards. I make sure that the budget is balanced and that we have money for payroll. I make sure that the kids feel safe, that all programs are running effectively.

JOHN MERROW: One of principal Sharon Clark’s first decisions was to separate students by gender. Last year, with the support of parents, she made another change.

The last we sat in — you were talking about adding a ninth grade.

SHARON CLARK: Yes. Because we are a charter, we have that option to change our grade configuration based on our community input. And, as a result, we now — we are a high school.

JOHN MERROW: Sophie B. Wright welcomed its first ninth-graders last fall.

WOMAN: Look up here.

JOHN MERROW: Nationally, charter schools have proven to be a mixed bag. Some show better results on state tests than traditional schools, and some don’t. In New Orleans, charter schools have scored significantly higher. Vallas says that’s because their survival depends upon it.

PAUL VALLAS: Schools know that, if they are not performing well academically, and if they are not attracting enough kids, they are going to be closed or consolidated.

JOHN MERROW: Have you seen any downsides to charters?

PAUL VALLAS: No, not at all, no.

JOHN MERROW: But former New Orleans charter leader Brian Riedlinger says he has.

BRIAN RIEDLINGER, CEO, School Leadership Center of Greater New Orleans: The problem that I have is that it’s taking an entrepreneurial view of schools, when schools are really not an entrepreneurial business.

JOHN MERROW: Riedlinger believes that New Orleans charter schools need more oversight than the state review conducted once every three years.

BRIAN RIEDLINGER: If you have a bunch of individual city-states, I’m going to do what works best for my city-state. And so will this one and so will this one. And the weaker city-states or the people who aren’t in city-states can get really slammed. And I will give you a good example. You know, are you taking every special-ed kid who walks into your door?

JOHN MERROW: Charter schools, like all public schools, are not allowed to deny admission to any students. But the numbers suggest that some of Vallas’ charters may be turning away students with special needs.

In Vallas’ traditional schools, 12.4 percent of students are enrolled in special education, compared to 8.7 percent in his charters.

PAUL VALLAS: As more schools of our convert to charters, and as more of our schools are granted charter-like independence, we are going to do more policing. We are going to focus more on accountability. If you are deliberately discouraging people or turning people away, that would be breach of contract. You could lose your charter.

JOHN MERROW: The teachers union has another concern. Just 6 percent of teachers in charter schools have joined the union.

JOY ASKIN, teacher, Sophie B. Wright Charter School: I guess I just don’t see the benefit of it now.

JOHN MERROW: Joy Askin, a teacher at Sophie B. Wright, was a member of the union before Katrina, when she was teaching at a traditional school.

JOY ASKIN: Before, when we were under Orleans Parish, it might be a large group of teachers that had the same concerns. And we could go to the union, and then we would have that large voice. Well, now, with us in different little pockets, and we have different concerns, we have — might have only three teachers here who don’t want to do the program. So, you know there is really no need for the union, per se, like we needed it before.

JOHN MERROW: But teachers union president Larry Carter says teachers need union protections.

LARRY CARTER, president, United Teachers of New Orleans: A contract, it only helps to make the school work or run more efficiently and effectively, not just having, you know, little kingdoms where individual persons feel that they can treat employees or even students any way they want to.

JOHN MERROW: The union hasn’t had a contract with the district since the state takeover. And Vallas would like to keep it that way, essentially saying to the teachers of New Orleans, trust me.

PAUL VALLAS: What I have tried to do is create a dynamic where you really don’t need a collective bargaining agreement. We have really worked to develop a set of rules that take the wind out of the sail of those out there who say there’s — we need a contract, we need an ironclad contract with the Recovery School District to protect our members.

JOHN MERROW: Vallas has had an incentive to maintain the status quo. Without a union contract, he’s been able to lay the groundwork for his charter school system very quickly. But what the schools will look like moving forward is unclear.

PAUL PASTOREK: It’s a very entrepreneurial environment with public education in New Orleans. And that’s fairly unheard of in our country. The challenge is that there’s very little institutional structure to hold it together. How we do that will determine whether it’s really going to be sustainable.

JOHN MERROW: Next year, New Orleans public schools will have to weather two big changes, the end of federal funds meant to support schools after Katrina and the end of Paul Vallas’ tenure in New Orleans. He’s already begun a new project, rebuilding earthquake-damaged schools in Haiti.

PAUL VALLAS: I will be definitely transitioning out next year. What that means, how quickly, that is yet to be determined.

JOHN MERROW: But, even after he leaves, Vallas is confident his makeover of the city schools and school system will remain.

PAUL VALLAS: You can’t turn back. Charters are authorized by the state. The state would have to not renew them. The great thing about this system is, it’s really going to be hard to dismantle what’s been created.

WOMAN: One, two, three.

JOHN MERROW: Paul Vallas’ ultimate legacy won’t be apparent for some time. In the not-too-distant future, the state will turn over the schools to the old Orleans Parish School Board. What it will do with a district that’s almost entirely charter schools is an open question.


JEFFREY BROWN: As we said, that was the last report in John’s series about New Orleans and Paul Vallas. You can watch his earlier stories and link to John’s Web site for other material by visiting the “NewsHour” online.