Governor Deal and the Recovery School District

Joash mentioned this in a post last week when Bobby Jindal came to down to stump for the governor, but I think this needs a little bit more discussion. I was kind of surprised that it hadn’t come up in any of the comments either. Greg Bluestein and Maureen Downey covered it a bit more in depth.

The fact that the governor is talking about a Recovery School District is a big deal. We already knew that education was going to be the issue de jour for this cycle after the budget came out. Follow that with all of Jason Carter’s assertions on education, which Kyle Wingfield has enjoyed (here and here), and that’s the substantive issue to talk about. It’s also a whole lot easier to care about education than ethics. Kids are much cuter.

So what is a recovery school district anyway? Essentially it’s when the state sets up a new state wide school district to govern the worst performing schools. Generally the number that is thrown around is the bottom five percent. This is related to Race to the Top’s requirements for failing schools. However, it should not be seen as RTTT having an effect on an RSD, both of the best examples were in place well before RTTT. Rather, the causal effect is likely the other direction.

Speaking of the best examples, we see those in Louisiana and Tennessee. Louisiana’s was put in place just before Katrina, but the storm provided the needed impetus to really take advantage of what an RSD could do. Tennessee started a few years later but has enjoyed the benefits of seeing what works and what needs to be done differently.

In both states, the failing schools have been converted to charter schools, with charters being given through the RSD (Tennessee calls theirs an Achievement School District). This is done because clearly the previous leadership was not doing what it was supposed to do.

In Louisiana they have yet to renew a charter of a school that is not reaching goals related to attendance and achievement. They also have not renewed a charter of a for profit company, so any charge of profiteering off of children’s education is bologna. In the NOLA environment, the community nonprofits are the only ones that have been able to show success, and to be good stewards of the people’s tax money.

NSNO1What kind of success has the RSD seen? Here’s ten years in New Orleans courtesy of New Schools New Orleans. What you can see is impressive growth in the RSD as opposed to normal schools state wide in Louisiana. NOLA is actually on track to have some of the best performing schools in the entire state.

What does this mean for Georgia? Well there are a lot of places that really need some help when it comes to school achievement. Likely Clayton, Fulton, and DeKalb counties are coming to mind in addition to the City of Atlanta. Though there are some schools in the Augusta, Columbus, and Savannah areas that need some help to.

Could this lead to better schools in Georgia? Absolutely. But we’d have to do it right, and we’d have to be committed to real change for the long haul. New Orleans didn’t see things change over night. Memphis took a managed growth approach, on account they didn’t have 117 schools close due to a hurricane. The lessons learned from Memphis and New Orleans should be applied.

You have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. Other states have some experience and we’re seeing good data once the commitment to a long term solution has been made. Lets start with five schools year one, raise that to ten schools for year two, maybe twenty year three. Growth in the RSD needs to be managed so that the whole reform doesn’t trip and fall on it’s face. If it isn’t managed, then there will be shortages of qualified teachers, school leaders, charter school governing boards, charter incubators, etc.

Georgia could definitely do this.


  1. It’s an interesting idea but is it a better idea than charter systems in the larger counties and combining systems (while maybe keeping football teams) in the smaller counties?

    I’d hesitate to compare New Orleans performance pre and post Katrina. The population is a lot different.

    • Charlie says:

      You should look at the data of the student population. It’s not as different as you would think, as well as the fact that you can see the data change per school as each one was moved into the RSD model. It’s one that needs to transcend partisan talking points and get folks learning about what actually can be done to help where schools are currently failing. It’s not “more money”, “blame the educators” nor “teach to the test” knee jerk solutions. It’s school by school, classroom by classroom change. And it’s working.

      • Yeah as I said it’s a really interesting concept especially when you consider that most schools are doing ok and you really probably can isolate the worst of the worst and giving them better attention could really help.

        Here are two articles that seem to indicate the RSD isn’t working in East Baton Rouge, a non-Katrina example.

        • Charlie says:

          I would probably agree that Albany may be too small.

          But with a system as large as New Orleans, you have the opportunity for real choice. The kids bid on which school they want to go to, and transportation is provided within 1 of four zones to any school in their zone, with some options available for out of zone transportation.

          No school has had a charter re-approved that didn’t meet its attendance and performance numbers. Zero tolerance.

          Perhaps most interestingly, none of the for-profit charter operators are left in NO. Only Non profit management companies are left operating schools.

          Every dollar stays public, Principals are in charge of their school totally (including discretion over lengthening the school day during the year, adding days, etc) and the county office is relegated to support activities such as running the lottery system for schools and the logistics like buses, as I understand it.

          I doubt you get the same result by sending in a charter management company to take over a remote rural school with no real choice option. But in an urban area, I can see this form of choice within a public system to be something worth giving an honest try.

          • Yeah I concur. When it comes to a district with a lot of problems like APS I’m torn because I see the divide in policy between two camps: one that says let’s just set up charters for the kids whose (parents) want to make something of themselves, the other that’s not willing to give up on a more global approach (but that might ultimately not help anyone even the kids who want to be praoctive).

            I do like that it is essentially a public charter option. The concept of charters like for Chamblee High School where I went – no private company running it just a lot of engaged parents and teachers is great.

            I’m less convinced on for profit at the lower end. I will try to learn more.

  2. Excellent post Eric. Kudos also to Governor Deal for floating this out. The debate over how to improve education in Georgia can’t simply be about more money. We need to dig deeper and explore real changes in the system. The recovery school district is certainly an idea worth considering.

  3. benevolus says:

    Sounds like a worthwhile idea. The timing of it makes one wonder whether there is really any willpower behind this though.

  4. SmyrnaSAHM says:

    New Orleans also has the highest percentage in the US of students attending private schools. The parochial system there is enormous, but there are plenty of non-Catholic private schools. Overall, 25.1% of New Orleans students attend a private school. Now, I can’t say exactly how that ties into the success (and it’s not necessarily a success for special needs students) of the RSD in New Orleans, but it’s certainly a factor, in some way or another, in the overall picture of what’s happening with education in New Orleans. Jefferson Parish (basically, the Cobb County of metro New Orleans, but without a major league baseball team) also has a very high amount of students attending private schools.

  5. Dr. Monica Henson says:

    Excellent work, Eric, and a cogent analysis.

    Just to clarify: “They also have not renewed a charter of a for profit company, so any charge of profiteering off of children’s education is bologna.” For-profit companies are not permitted to hold charters–they can only enter into contracts with charter holders. Only nonprofit boards of directors are allowed to hold charters. They are then free to contract with any licensed business, just as school districts do.

    In most cases of so-called “for-profit charter schools” (a misnomer), the for-profit company is contracted by the nonprofit board to run the school, has hiring and firing authority over the staff, and makes administrative decisions, while the board makes governance decisions. In places like NOLA’s RSD, with such a heavy focus by the authorizer on academic outcomes, I am of the opinion that for-profits have determined that the financial outcome is not going to be permitted to be the primary force in administrative decision-making, hence the departures of the management companies.

    Full disclosure: I run a statewide public charter school where the board of directors has a contract with a for-profit educational service provider to deliver online curriculum and some instructional services. Many traditional school districts across the United States also do business with this provider and purchase the same services we do. However, the entire school staff, including me, are employed by the nonprofit board, not the management company, and the company has no administrative authority over any school decisions. They are a vendor only. We are members of the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia and are certified by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. We also have contracts with Office Depot and United Parcel Service…for-profit companies that make money doing business with public schools.

    • Harry says:

      Why do you need the Teachers Retirement System? Why not just social security and a defined benefit plan? That would save a ton of money and allow free movement of personnel to or from other career options.

      • Harry says:

        Sorry, I meant defined contribution plan of course. Why not put teachers on the same benefits platform as practically all of the taxpayers who pay their salaries?

        • Dr. Monica Henson says:

          Harry, the board of directors set up the retirement structure that way at the inception of the school. It does help attract experienced staff when they know that they can stay with TRS.

          • Harry says:

            I strongly suspect the Board of Directors was “encouraged” by the local Board of Education to set it up that way. If they had gone rogue on this there would be hell to pay. You’d lose the support of the educational establishment. Therefore, you are not really an independent school but rather a captive of the system. At least you get a nice retirement until the empire collapse.

    • Eric The Younger says:

      It was my understanding from a presentation given by Nereev Kingsland at a YPEE meeting that initially there were some for profit companies that had a more active role and that those companies were unable to meet the metrics.

      • Dr. Monica Henson says:

        You’re correct that there were for-profit management companies that came in early on–my point is that those companies were not the actual holders of the charters. They entered into contracts with the nonprofit charter boards.

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