Special Education Governance in New Orleans

In recent years, schools in New Orleans have made outsized progress in educating students with disabilities. This is due first and foremost to the efforts of educators and entrepreneurs who have worked relentlessly to develop new and better ways to serve these students. But they do not work in isolation. New Orleans’ success is a function of governance: the careful partnership between government, schools, and nonprofit organizations that has come to define the New Orleans model of education.

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The New Orleans Approach

New Orleans is the only city in America in which charter schools have succeeded, at scale and en masse, in educating higher proportions of students with disabilities than traditional public schools. And it may be the only city in America in which the regulatory system properly empowers charter schools to serve all students at the highest levels.

From 2008 to 2013, the proficiency rate for students with disabilities in New Orleans soared from 18 percent to 44 percent, surpassing the rest of Louisiana, where proficiency rates rose from 31 percent to 43 percent. As of 2013, the graduation rate for students with disabilities in New Orleans was 48 percent compared to 37 percent in Louisiana as a whole.

The Recovery School District (RSD) and, increasingly, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), have refined the role of government in public education to focus on the core functions of setting high and clear expectations for performance, providing schools and educators with meaningful and aligned incentives, ensuring equitable access for students, assessing the performance of schools, and holding schools accountable for their results.

This is a narrower role for government but one that is no less powerful; it is not an abdication of responsibility but an acceptance of the importance of empowering educators to lead and of working closely with the nonprofit sector. While there remains much work to be done in New Orleans, the results have been promising so far—and they may present a path forward for other cities.

Lessons from the New Orleans Experience

Treat every charter school and/or charter management organization (CMO) as its own Local Education Agency (LEA) for the purposes of special education. Doing so will localize autonomy and accountability at the school, or network, level. This is critical to ensuring clear expectations for schools and preparing to hold them accountable in the future. Both the State Education Agency (SEA) and the authorizer share responsibility for overseeing the special education program; they should have distinct responsibilities and must work collaboratively to ensure their activities are coordinated and non-redundant. Most importantly, they must share information effectively. In this scenario, the SEA may focus on compliance, and the authorizer may look at outcomes and focuses on quality. For this to work well, the authorizer must have access to full and timely compliance data from the SEA, especially those data that might inform high-stakes decisions such as contract renewal.

Ensure fairness and adequacy in funding. There are many reasons why school leaders don’t want to serve the highest-need students, but funding is chief among them. If we can take funding out of the equation, we are one step closer to a world in which every charter leader is at worst indifferent to the prospect of enrolling significantly more high-needs students.

The key way New Orleans promotes equity and fairness in funding is through a differentiated funding formula. Through this formula, the RSD reallocates the state per-pupil allocation to RSD charter schools based on their population of students with disabilities as measured across multiple disability categories and intensity tiers. We think of this as the logical evolution of site-based budgeting, moving from merely “having the dollars follow the student,” to having the right number of dollars follow each student.

The RSD and the OPSB have also worked together to provide $5 million of start-up funding for a Citywide Exceptional Needs Fund (CENF) and up to $1.3 million of revenue per year to ensure that the fund can continue to provide schools with relief from students with exceptional costs. Through the CENF, the RSD and the OPSB provide supplementary funding to cover the financial gap between revenue and expenses for students whose disabilities require quite expensive programming. Importantly, we could not have accomplished this without the support and partnership of the charter school community and the Orleans Parish School Board.

Dedicate philanthropic and governmental funding to incentivize specialization and capacity building in schools across the city or district. To spur the launch of charter schools, we leverage philanthropic and government dollars to fund recruiting and training of ambitious educators, developing new programs, and scaling up successful school models. We need to take this same approach with programming for students with disabilities.

In New Orleans, the Recovery School District and New Schools for New Orleans are working together to provide millions of dollars in grant funding to support the launch and expansion of specialty programming for students with disabilities. Perhaps, similar programs might exist in a centralized system but educators and entrepreneurs would not have the same freedom and flexibility to launch and expand programs rapidly to meet new needs, and families would likely not have the opportunity to choose among multiple competing options.

In addition to investing in specialized programming, we must also commit to improving our training and development for special educators. New Orleans is the recent beneficiary of a U.S. Department of Education grant to help the charter sector build capacity to serve students with special needs. Through this grant, New Schools for New Orleans will work closely with local teacher training partners and CMOs to improve training for special education teachers and coordinators in New Orleans.

Much More to Be Done

As a system of schools, New Orleans is far from perfect. Despite significant progress, the vast majority of our schools fail to prepare students for success beyond high school. That fact notwithstanding, other cities looking to improve special education performance and compliance should consider adopting these four key elements of the New Orleans approach:

  1. Make each school or school network its own LEA and therefore directly accountable under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  2. Enact unified processes of admissions and expulsion to ensure equitable access for families.
  3. Provide differentiated funding and access to a high-cost insurance pool.
  4. Work with local and national funders to invest in grant programs that will incentivize the launch and scaling of specialty programming to serve students with high-intensity and/or low-incidence disabilities.

These efforts will not be easy or cheap, and they will require significant behavioral shifts on the part of educators, bureaucrats, and families, but I believe they provide cities like New Orleans with the best possible chance of ensuring choice and excellence for students with disabilities.

Adam Hawf (@adamhawf) is a former Assistant Superintendent of the Louisiana Department of Education and Deputy Superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD). Currently, he works with school districts, charter management organizations, and state departments of education to expand access to excellent schools for all students.

As a CRPE practitioner in residence, Hawf will support our state and city level governance work, providing insights from his experience in Louisiana, with an emphasis on raising school accountability standards, serving special needs students, and supporting school choice.

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