Senators see hope in retooled N.O. schools

Officials urged to make full use of opportunity

Posted on July 17, 2006

Three members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee lauded local education officials for their efforts to take advantage of New Orleans' once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve public schools during a special hearing in the heart of the French Quarter Friday. "New Orleans has an opportunity out of this tragedy that no city in America has," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development. Noting that 34 of 57 schools opening later this summer will be charters, he added: "New Orleans will be the leading big city in America creating new charter schools." The three senators -- Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.; Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.; and Alexander -- heard testimony from eight state and local education officials and a local parent, gathering information about the new system shaping in New Orleans. One benefit of the new system will be offering families the unprecedented opportunity to choose among the various charter, state-run and district schools opening in the next few months, Alexander said. "The idea of giving free market choice to families of New Orleans primarily benefits low-income people because people with money often (only) have those choices," he said. One of those giving testimony, Linda Johnson of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, agreed, but said persuading parents that the remade schools are worth sending their children to will take some time. "First you have to make sure they understand that these are all better schools," she said. Landrieu also touched on a debate currently raging in the city, over the number of selective admissions campuses. While she declined to be specific in an interview afterward, Landrieu said during the hearing: "A public school system needs to be open and accessible to all students." Earlier in the day, after learning that the senators' plane was delayed by bad weather in Washington, D.C., those who had arrived at the Louisiana Supreme Court building to offer testimony held an informal roundtable discussion during which selective admissions became a hot-button item. After Orleans Parish School Board President Phyllis Landrieu, the senator's aunt, reiterated the district's decision to make their four campuses selective, Tulane University President Scott Cowen, who led the discussion but left before the senators arrived, said he had reservations about that idea and encouraged her to "rethink this issue." Although Tulane has an agreement with the selective but high-performing Lusher School to educate children of the university's staff and, in turn, offer financial assistance to that campus, Cowen said: "As you know, we (work with) a charter school that is selective admissions and I'm going to be pushing like hell to make it open admissions." Recovery School District Superintendent Robin Jarvis suggested she too opposed selective admissions public schools, saying: "We can't create exclusive, separate schools, because we cannot exist beyond school in those separate worlds." One of the 18 schools the recovery district is planning to operate and none of the schools they've chartered will be selective admissions campuses. Phyllis Landrieu said their decision to make all of their schools selective stems from a fear that the state will take the last campuses they have left if they do not perform well. "I think you have to take a leap of faith," said Brian Riedlinger, CEO of the Algiers Charter Schools Association, where all eight of their schools are open enrollment. "As the school gets better, as the atmosphere gets better, the parents will come back." In November, the state Legislature voted to place 107 of 128 public schools in the city into a state-run recovery district. All but four of those left with the local district have been chartered. The three senators, also members of the Subcommittee on Bioterrorism and Public Health Preparedness, also heard from local and state hospital officials during a separate hearing at the Supreme Court building. copyright, New Orleans Times-Picayune