- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - More than a decade after a catastrophic hurricane led to the state’s takeover of most New Orleans public schools, Louisiana’s Legislature is poised to return oversight to a local school board that was once widely maligned.

The state House in Baton Rouge on Thursday voted 55-16 for legislation that returns governance of more than 50 schools to the New Orleans board as early as 2018. The Senate has approved the measure but will have to cast one more vote next week on minor House language changes. The bill would then go to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has said he will sign it.

Levee failures after Katrina left much of New Orleans, including many schools, in ruins. Legislators and then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco used the opportunity to seize control of scores of schools from what was then an ineffective, corruption-plagued school system. The school board was allowed to keep a few higher-performing schools.

After taking over the schools, the state’s Recovery School District eventually turned the day-to-day operations of each to independent charter organizations.

They will remain charter schools under the local board - which is why some charter critics oppose the bill. Some charter supporters, meanwhile, questioned whether the Orleans Parish School Board should get the schools back.

“How do we know that these charter schools, to go back under that umbrella, will not be affected in a negative way?” Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, asked the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

“That was many years ago,” Leger said Thursday of the board’s past controversies. “Our school board … has demonstrated good fiscal management of the schools they are operating.”

Connick eventually voted for the bill.

Schools have improved measurably, if slowly and unevenly, under the state’s oversight. But the state takeover drew tenacious resistance from opponents in New Orleans, upset at the loss of local control, as well as the firing of thousands of school employees in the decimated city. Critics decried the closure of schools that were the center of social life in some communities. An open-enrollment process designed to let parents choose where to send their children also was blamed for the demise of some neighborhood schools.

The RSD eventually turned operations of all of its schools over to independent charter organizations. The schools have broad autonomy in day-to-day operations, with the RSD as an administrator and watchdog having the power to renew or revoke charters.

Under the bill, the Orleans Parish School Board would assume the RSD’s broad administrative authority and its role in deciding whether to revoke or renew existing charters and whether to authorize new ones. The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said the bill was supported by a majority of the New Orleans delegation and was drawn up with collaboration from Patrick Dobard, superintendent of the RSD, and his counterpart in the Orleans Parish system, Henderson Lewis.

The bill’s critics in New Orleans say it does not really provide local control at all.

“It is returning a system of charter schools which maintain their unelected, self-appointed governance structure,” Karran Harpar Royal, a New Orleans parent and longtime charter and RSD critic, said in a Thursday interview.

Royal argues that the charter schools have too much autonomy from elected officials and, thus, too much isolation from parents and taxpayers.

But the bill has won over charter supporters, such as the group Democrats for Education Reform-Louisiana. “Now it’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and begin to implement and execute this law,” Eva Kemp, the group’s state director, said in a news release.

Schools are to be moved from RSD to local school board oversight by July 2018 under the bill, although that could be put off until 2019 under provisions outlined in the legislation. The bill provides for an appointment of an advisory committee, including Dobard and Lewis, in a transition plan.

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Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge contributed to this story.

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