The Politics of Education Reform: Lessons from New Orleans

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

The education system in New Orleans was in need of dramatic reform long before Hurricane Katrina. The storm razed the educational facilities and state leaders took the opportunity to raze the broken educational governance structures in New Orleans. Leaders re-created the Orleans Parish School District based on the education reforms sweeping the nation: school choice, accountability, state takeover of failing schools, and charter schools. "Katrina struck at a critical moment in the evolution of the contemporary education-reform movement"1 and New Orleans "became a magnet for the school-reform movement."2 The new reforms took root and Orleans Parish School District became the only school district in the United States with a majority of students attending charter schools.3 It also became one of the few school districts where the state took control of a vast majority of the schools under state accountability laws.4 The city is now the proving ground for modern education reforms and policymakers from around the country are watching closely.5 The mistakes made and lessons learned in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina can act as a roadmap for states and districts moving toward the "new" education model- choice plans, charter schools, and greater state involvement in education.

This Article focuses on the politics shaping the education reform efforts in New Orleans. It will not tackle the raging debate about whether charter schools and choice models provide a better education than traditional governance models.6 Instead, this article discusses the political divides and hurdles that arise with the adoption of choice and charter models. It is these political battles, and not student achievement data and school performance scores, which determine the form and substance of education reform.7 The disparate agendas of the interest groups- such as the teacher's union, the state, the Orleans Parrish School Board, charter operators, and the federal government- have radically shaped the course of reconstructing education in New Orleans. Tracking these diverse interests and the political fault lines they create provides a window into similar political forces that will affect education reform in states that adopt school choice, charter schools, and state takeover measures.

Part II of this article explains the political landscape before the storm, with an emphasis on the state's repeated and failed attempts to gain control over the woefully underperforming New Orleans Public Schools. Hurricane Katrina altered the delicate balance of power and this part explains the varied interests considered and political battles waged when creating Act 35, the emergency legislation that radically transformed school governance after Katrina. Part III explains the intricacies of Act 35 and the complex governance structure and myriad types of schools it created. The decentralized, multi-operator school system created by Act 35 heightened long-standing political frictions and created entirely new ones. Part IV explores these political divides and the major political players, such as the state run Recovery School District, the Orleans Parrish School Board and the individual charter schools, and their diverging interests. The political schisms arising since Hurricane Katrina often hinder the reform effort. This Part also explains the large political issues looming on the horizon, such as charter renewal and revocation and whether, when, and how the state will return control of the schools to local control. Finally, Part V explores the political lessons other school districts and states can learn from the New Orleans experience, particularly as it relates to state takeover, charter schools, and school choice plans.

II. PRE-KATRINA EDUCATION REFORMS IN NEW ORLEANS

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish School District (OPSD) was viewed as one of the worst urban school districts in the nation.8 Most of its schools were "academically unacceptable"9 under state standards and 112 of the 127 public schools were being threatened with state takeover. …