It's Time for a Unified Public School System in New Orleans

May 3, 2016 12:00:00 AM


The path to meaningful and lasting change in our public schools system is often difficult, driven by successes and slowed by setbacks along the way. Nevertheless, as anyone fighting for this effort will tell you, the enormity of the challenge pales in comparison to the incredible opportunity of realizing the day when every student in every neighborhood nationwide receives the world-class public education they deserve. One place this road has been both particularly daunting and incredibly promising is in New Orleans. A decade ago, the country watched with broken hearts as Hurricane Katrina’s devastation and destruction forced the closure of most of New Orleans’ schools and ushered in a major overhaul of the district’s struggling system. Rather than reverting to a broken status quo, local families, school leaders, elected officials and community members came together to revitalize New Orleans’ schools. As a result, they created one of the most innovative school systems in the country. By empowering parents with high-quality public school options, challenging students to meet high standards, and grounding the system with strong accountability at every level, [pullquote]New Orleans has become a model of reform for the nation.[/pullquote] And now, New Orleans is ready to continue forward into the next phase of educational excellence.

Finding a Lasting Solution

It’s time for a productive and thoughtful transition to a single unified, autonomous public school system in New Orleans. We must finally define and effectively implement a solution that protects and builds upon the remarkable gains in student achievement and school performance from the past 10 years, and brings together the best of what has been working for New Orleans’ students into one district. This move toward unification must balance the need for locally elected governance of schools with the flexibility and independence necessary to continue making meaningful progress for students. And, fundamentally, [pullquote position="right"]unification must also be a community-led effort.[/pullquote] That’s why I’m encouraged by the Louisiana Senate’s proposals in SB 432, which is the product of collaboration among local school leaders, parents, stakeholders, advocates and elected officials who have come together to find a lasting solution. This solid foundation of trust and open dialogue will be critical both for the passage and successful transition to a unified system. I particularly want to acknowledge Senator Karen Carter Peterson and contributing authors—Senators Wesley Bishop, Troy Carter, and JP Morrell, as well as Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger, Representatives John Bagneris, Gary Carter, Jimmy Harris, Stephanie Hilferty and Helena Moreno—for their leadership, contributions and expertise in advancing SB 432 on behalf of New Orleans’ students.

A Commitment to Parents, Students and Community

My personal experience in Newark, New Jersey—where the state has controlled the local school district for more than 20 years—has confirmed for me what I already assumed intuitively: The path to sustainable reform runs through, not around, parents and local communities. There is no love like that of a parent for her child. That love either will fuel relentless advocacy for change, or passionate opposition to it—the choice is ours based upon the integrity of how those of us who support reform engage and persuade communities. In this regard, [pullquote]the unification of New Orleans’ schools offers yet another opportunity for the city to serve as an example of excellence in its lasting commitment to students.[/pullquote] This process must be guided by the highest priority of protecting and growing great schools, and offering consistently high-quality options that best meet the needs of students. And the return to unification must build upon the tremendous progress we’ve seen in New Orleans over the last decade. While 63 percent of New Orleans’ students were stuck in persistently underperforming schools in 2004, that number fell to a mere 6 percent by 2014. Likewise, New Orleans’ high-school graduation rate has increased dramatically from 54 percent in 2004, to 73 percent in 2014. Perhaps most importantly, college attendance has more than doubled, shooting up from a 22 percent college-attendance rate in 2004, to 59 percent in 2014. These results show that several thousands of New Orleans’ children have brighter futures because of current reforms, and these efforts—and the progress they promise—must continue to anchor education policy as we transition toward unification.

There’s Still Work to Do

While we should be extraordinarily proud of this progress, however, we acknowledge nonetheless that we still have so much more to do. Every child deserves a better chance at a brighter future through a high-quality public education. We at Democrats for Education Reform are committed to working alongside community leaders and stakeholders in New Orleans as we enter this next phase and strive to create a strong, unified public school system for New Orleans that unlocks our students’ limitless potential and supports them with the resources and individualized programs they need to succeed. I am constantly inspired by the drive, determination, and spirit of New Orleans. I cannot wait to see what this new chapter of achievement will bring.

Shavar Jeffries

Shavar Jeffries serves as president of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Jeffries began this role in September 2015, and brings a personal commitment to ensuring that a child’s zip code does not define their destiny. From his efforts fighting for fair funding practices to get schools the resources they deserved to his service leading the New Jersey Attorney General’s Juvenile Justice and Civil Rights Departments, he has been a vocal advocate for social justice. Shavar’s commitment to improve education stems directly from his personal experience. Jeffries was raised by his grandmother in the South Ward of Newark, New Jersey. His grandmother, a public school teacher, instilled in him a deep respect for the value of education. After receiving scholarships to Seton Hall Preparatory School, Duke, and Columbia Law School, he moved back to Newark with the firm belief that his path to success—through high-quality education—should not be the outlier for students in Newark, but rather the rule. Shavar has been extensively involved in the Newark community and has tirelessly advocated to improve the city’s schools. He was the founding board president of TEAM Academy Charter School, board president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newark, and a board member of Seton Hall Preparatory School. In 2010, he was elected to the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board, and was then unanimously selected by his colleagues to serve as board president. Shavar ran as a candidate for Newark mayor in 2014 in a campaign that attracted national attention, and during which he made improving Newark’s schools a cornerstone of his campaign. Despite being a first-time municipal candidate, Shavar gained broad support, obtaining over 46 percent of the vote, a historic number for a first-time Newark municipal candidate. Shavar also serves as a partner at Lowenstein Sandler, where he has been a fierce advocate for families seeking fair practices in funding education and ensuring that the laws governing education systems help students, rather than trapping them in failing schools. Prior to joining the law firm, he was an associate professor of Law at Seton Hall Law School’s Center for Social Justice in Newark, New Jersey, where he ran a litigation clinic focused on complex and class action litigation and advocacy. In this role, he helped numerous clients, in both individual and class actions, defend themselves against unlawful education policies, consumer fraud, and overly broad government actions in wide-ranging matters affecting individual rights and liberties. From 2008 to 2010, Shavar was counsel to New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram. In that role, Shavar oversaw all multi-state investigations, spanning a range of issues from securities and consumer fraud to environmental protection and human trafficking. He also supervised several divisions of the office, including the Division on Civil Rights, encompassing responsibility for enforcing a wide range of state and federal employment and anti-discrimination statutes. Shavar began his legal career as an associate at Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, where he represented the University of Michigan in defending its affirmative-action student admissions programs, and also represented Black farmers who had been discriminated against by the United States Department of Agriculture. After leaving Wilmer, Shavar served as a Gibbons Fellow in Public Interest and Constitutional Litigation at Gibbons P.C., where he handled school-funding, special-education, affordable-housing, and prisoners’ rights cases, among others. Shavar has received numerous honors for his advocacy, including “40 Under 40” recognition by the National Bar Association as one of the nation’s top lawyers, the Congressional Black Caucus’s Chairman’s Award, the NAACP’s Freedom Fund award, the Brendan Byrne Distinguished Public Servant Award, and the Black Alliance for Educational Options’ education-reform award.

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