The last decade has produced tectonic shifts to education in New Orleans, the first major city in the U.S. without any traditional public schools run by a central office. But even though decentralization of the local school system has been years in the making, many parents still don’t understand how it all works.
That’s according to “What Do Parents Think?,” a report from the Cowen Institute, an education research and innovation center based at Tulane University.
The report also found that nearly half of public school parents surveyed think the local school system has neither improved nor gotten worse since charter schools came on the scene.
With the charter movement comes school choice, which means more options for families. But it also means a complex lottery application system, long commutes across town for many students, decentralized services like bus transportation, and frequent leadership turnover as charters are revoked for reasons ranging from poor fiscal management to failing grades from the state.
“I completely understand why parents would be confused,” said Vincent Rossmeier, the Cowen Institute’s director of policy.
The institute has conducted similar surveys each year since 2007 to gauge the public’s opinion on school governance and performance. While the questions have remained similar, this year’s poll was exclusively given to parents and guardians of New Orleans public school students, excluding residents who have no ties to public education, Rossmeier said.
The survey results, released this month, show that parents care deeply about public education. Of the 500 parents surveyed, education outranked crime, infrastructure, the economy and health care as the most important issue facing residents.
But respondents were divided over whether the return of all local schools to the Orleans Parish School Board’s oversight has improved things for local kids.
A plurality, or 40% of parents, said they felt neutral toward the OPSB, with more white parents (37%) viewing the board negatively than black parents (25%).
The board no longer operates any schools itself, but it acts as the authorizer of the 38 separate charter management organizations that run the city’s public schools.
The Cowen Institute saw similar results when asking how respondents felt about charter schools. Overall, a little more than a third felt neutral about the current quality of New Orleans’ charter schools, while 30% saw them in a good light and 29% felt negatively about them.
About half (49%) agreed with the statement that charter schools are improving local education, and a plurality (47%) gave the district the same rating the Louisiana Department of Education has bestowed on it: a grade of C.
Parents were in agreement on some things, with 82% saying a school’s letter grade should be based on more than students’ academic performance. Graduation rates, curriculum and student attendance all outranked academic performance in terms of importance.
Most thought a unified calendar for all charter schools in the city would improve things.
What’s unclear, Rossmeier said, is whether parents’ opinions would change if more truly understood the system.
The survey showed that many parents weren’t aware that the district recently closed some low-performing schools.
And many didn’t understand selective-admissions schools, which require students to take a test to get in and can rank admission in part based on other criteria, such as affiliation with a university associated with the school.
When asked, 46% said they did not know if their child was in a selective-admissions school or not.
Some of the confusion could relate to how parents get information, the survey found.
About 57% of parents and guardians said they didn’t visit any schools before enrolling their children, and 40% said they got their information about OneApp, the city’s unified enrollment system, through word of mouth.
Another 11% got information from social media, 6% from the school district and only 4% from local news media.
“We think there needs to be a greater effort to help inform parents,” Rossmeier said.