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One Foot Out The Door: The Closing of Crescent Leadership, Public Trust, and School Accountability

New Orleans charter Crescent Leadership Academy — the city’s only alternative setting for middle school students — has announced it will shut down October 31st, in the middle of the school year, for financial reasons. Though OPEN has concerns about how this could happen, we are especially concerned about what it says about equity in our schools, the sustainability of this system and what all of this means for students and families.

The issue seems to have originated with OPSB’s switch from a per-pupil funding model — where the school receives a certain amount of money for every registered student — to one based on daily attendance, where schools receive money based on the amount of students registered AND the amount of days they attended school.

Such a policy (presumably) ensures that public money is spent on actual instruction of actual students, instead of schools receiving money to educate a student that, for whatever reason, isn’t in school. This is a systemwide policy that is being applied equally to both alternative-setting schools and traditional ones, but by the nature of different student population types the effects may not be equitable, as we’re seeing here.

The reality of educating students in an alternative setting is that an attendance-based funding model will disproportionately impact alternative schools like CLA that historically have struggled with maintaining high attendance rates among its student population. Fellows from our Education Policy Fellowship Program (EPFP) examined this very issue in May, presenting a policy brief on the issues with holding alternative schools accountable to traditional school standards (click here to read the full brief). We also heard from a panel of local education leaders about alternative settings and school policy — you can view the discussion here.

These considerations, coupled with a model where schools may make governance and operational decisions and shift their course of business however they see fit (and apparently whenever they want), create situations like these that leave educators, students and families in an uncomfortable lurch.

So: we understand the structural and technical issues of why and how this could happen. What gives us pause, though, is what scenarios like this tell us about this school system’s sustainability, and how it is contributing to a culture of a lack of public accountability rather than improving it.

We can’t have a public school system where individual schools can close with little to no advance warning. As stewards of public resources meant to deliver a public, social and economic good, schools cannot abdicate their responsibility to the public whenever they want. Essential school functions need adequate resources, and we need a system that can get resources to the classroom. However, significant and sustained student results and life outcomes will not arise from a survival-of-the-fittest operation and economic model for schools. Because when the adults can’t survive, the students pay the price.

We cannot tolerate a system where schools can abdicate their responsibility to the public whenever they want.

Sadly, this situation isn’t even an anomaly. Only last year, school operators made a similar decision to relinquish their governance of Cypress Academy for the 2018 school year, also citing financial difficulties. Systems actors may have known in advance, but parents didn’t and had to jump into action at the 25th hour to save their school. OPSB ended up assuming control of that school through the current school year, and its fate is now uncertain.

What happened at Cypress Academy and now at Crescent Leadership Academy are just some of the more sensational scenarios highlighting a problem with school accountability to the public. Yet every day, in big and small ways, we feel the effects of public servants abdicating their responsibility to the public swiftly and with little notice.

Only a few weeks ago a teacher accused a school of restricting her ability to leave the premises after she had given notice of her decision to quit earlier that day. Teachers leaving just weeks into or in the middle of the school year is a common occurrence seen and felt by students and families. Though the reasons for these sudden departures may be understandable (the teacher did cite unacceptable work conditions and lack of support as the main reasons for leaving) they are not acceptable, especially for students caught up in unstable and inconsistent learning environments. In the public education sector, at-will employment contracts — a staple of private business and tool for suppressing collective power — are a sword that cuts three ways: employers and employees aren’t even responsible to each other, or really even students.

No system — private or public — can operate like this. Systems that operate for the benefit of the public especially must demonstrate an ongoing, sustained commitment to serving the immediate and long-term needs of the public.

How committed should New Orleans communities be to a school system where educators can — and do — leave whenever they want?

So What Needs To Happen?

Support Public Institutions

A decades-long nationwide attack on public institutions and an overestimation of the private sector is how we got here. The private market ideology of rugged competition, where everyone is a customer, doesn’t work in the public sector where we all must be responsible for each other.

For every school that has already closed its doors due to a lack of “customers,” there are more providing much-needed services looking worriedly at their balance sheets, considering a similar fate. Students getting what they need shouldn’t depend on market trends or the marketing and advertising budgets of any individual school. It’s time to reclaim faith in public institutions that are rooted in community stability and shared civic responsibility. We need public schools fully supported by and accountable to the public.

Create Equitable School Policy

We agree with accountability measures that ensure public resources are used as intended, but these policies have to be balanced against the needs of differently structured schools with different student bodies. Often proponents of school choice proclaim that “one size doesn’t fit all.” That logic should apply to school policy as well. Simply put: alternative schools need an alternative accountability framework.

Community at Every Table

Those most impacted by schools opening, closing or transferring to another operator must be involved in those decisions. Schools are stewards of public dollars and must first be held accountable to the public. Strong family participation on charter school boards and in charter authorizing and renewal conversations are essential.

Stronger Contracts

Schools closing mid year happens only because it’s allowed. OPSB’s job is to hold schools accountable to the contracts which allow them to make decisions with public resources. We need stronger school contracts with provisions for demonstrated financial solvency that can support reasonable enrollment margins before the first day of school or face a penalty for breach of contract.

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