Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Searching for Equity amid a System of Schools: The View from New Orleans

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Searching for Equity amid a System of Schools: The View from New Orleans

Article excerpt


Hurricane Katrina leveled both the buildings and governance structure of the New Orleans school system. The system was transformed from one elected school board controlling nearly all the schools to a system of schools with sixty-three school districts operating within the city's geographic boundaries that are run by forty-four independent school boards. There is not a more decentralized school governance structure in the United States. This Article discusses how this new system of schools is attempting to achieve equal educational opportunities for its most vulnerable and at-risk student populations: the poor, minorities, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners.

For the first seven years after Katrina, the system of schools operated with virtually no centralized planning or unified services, instead pushing all decision-making and service provision down to the autonomous schools. With little oversight, the schools became balkanized by race, class, and ability because of unequal access, retention, and service provision, and because certain schools are specialized for discrete student populations. It became apparent that centralizing certain services and unifying policies was essential to creating equal opportunities for vulnerable students, which slowly began occurring in 2012.

Today, New Orleans education stands at a crossroads in deciding how to achieve equity for its vulnerable student populations. One route relies on centralizing services, planning, and oversight to ensure that every school provides an appropriate education to any type of student that walks through the schoolhouse door. This path embraces the version of inclusion equality set forth in Brown v. Board of Education: "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The other route relies on the market driven reform underlying the charter movement to create specialized schools to fill the unmet demands of vulnerable populations. This route embraces an emerging view of equality--where separate can be equal, possibly even superior, if parents are empowered to maximize their child's academic outcomes in specialized settings. This Article argues that New Orleans is headed down this latter route and identifies the lessons that can be learned from its evolution to a system of schools.

Table of Contents

  I. The Education Landscape of New Orleans
     A. The Evolution of a System of Schools
     B. The System of Schools Today
 II. Equity in the New Orleans System of Schools
     A. Race and Class Equity
        1. Access Equity
        2. Retention Equity
        3. Choice
     B. Equity for Students with Disabilities
     C. Equity for English Language Learners
III. The Impact of Moving to a System of Schools on Equity
     A. Centralized Planning or the "Invisible Hand"
     B. Lessons from New Orleans


New Orleans has been the epicenter of education reform since Hurricane Katrina decimated the city and its schools in August of 2005. (1) In the storm's aftermath. New Orleans schools were remade based on the education reforms of the day: charter schools, choice, and state takeover of failing schools. The Recovery School District (RSD), an arm of the state Department of Education, wrested control of over ninety percent of the schools from the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and chartered these schools to private operators over the course of the next nine years. In the 2014-15 school year, the RSD became the first district in the United States to have one hundred percent charter schools. (2) With seventy-four charter schools, sixty-seven private schools, and only six traditional schools run directly by an elected school board, New Orleans is "reinventing itself as a decentralized system of schools." (3)

The changes in New Orleans are called a "grand experiment in urban education for the nation" (4) that could "shake the foundation of American education. …

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