The big question about a portfolio school system—where all schools operate under strong performance and equity oversight, but are free to innovate and provide coherent instruction without fear of constant re-regulation—is whether that vision can be accomplished under a locally elected school board’s control. And now, a bill moving quickly through the Louisiana state legislature will put that question directly to the test.
Reorganizing time, talent, technology, and physical space to support personalized learning takes money, planning, and time. Dozens of philanthropies, new support organizations, and policy groups are dedicated to helping schools implement this model. To date, philanthropic dollars have footed the bill for most start-up costs in many personalized learning schools.
However, if personalized learning models prove promising enough for more widespread adoption, we’ll need to know how they can be developed and sustained at scale.
More and more cities are trying community schools, which wrap health, dental, therapeutic, and family support services around existing schools to try to mitigate the effects of poverty and thereby improve students’ learning and life prospects. This idea is not new; its modern incarnation started in Cincinnati in the early 2000s and has now spread to New York City and Philadelphia.
Too often, well-intended systemic school reform initiatives in this country have been largely top-down affairs. Typical community engagement in these efforts might include holding meetings with residents, community groups, and families to solicit buy-in for plans and changes already well underway. But the deeper work of building relationships over time, through trust and understanding with the intended beneficiaries of those system changes, has been largely bypassed in favor of urgency. Many communities have experienced reform as something done “to” them or “for” them—not “with” them.
Michelle King, the new superintendent at Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), has been on a listening tour. A 30-plus year veteran of the district who has risen from the teacher ranks, King wants to connect with parents and share her plans for the district, then hear their concerns—standard practice for an incoming schools’ chief. But for her first stop, King chose a low-income neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, where there are some strong and popular charter schools.
Last week, the Louisiana House of Representatives approved $106 million in cuts to address a budget shortfall caused in part by falling oil and gas prices. As reported by the Associated Press, almost half of those cuts would fall on the state’s Department of Education, gutting the agency charged with overseeing public schools statewide by eliminating more than 85 percent of its funding.
New Orleanians can have it both ways—return schools to local control and build on the academic gains made since 2005. Yes, local control could mean the return of politics and bureaucracy that weaken schools and divert money away from the classroom. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Many critics of school boards invoke Mark Twain, who famously quipped, “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” But the problem with school boards—in New Orleans’ past and across the country—is not the people but the job itself.