How New Orleans Made Charter Schools Work: Since Katrina, the Crescent City's Schools Have Produced What Some Experts Believe to Be the Most Rapid Academic Improvement in American History-And Created a Reform Model Other Cities Are Trying

By Osborne, David | The Washington Monthly, June-August 2015 | Go to article overview

How New Orleans Made Charter Schools Work: Since Katrina, the Crescent City's Schools Have Produced What Some Experts Believe to Be the Most Rapid Academic Improvement in American History-And Created a Reform Model Other Cities Are Trying


Osborne, David, The Washington Monthly


Last year 2.9 million children attended 6,700 charter schools in America--public schools independent of f districts and free of many bureaucratic constraints. Since charters were invented in Minnesota twenty-four years ago, they have become the subject of intense battles between supporters and detractors.

Supporters point out that charters receive 28 percent less money per child, on average, but still have higher graduation rates and send a higher percentage of graduates to college than traditional public schools with similar demographics. Detractors counter that charters often push out the hardest-to-teach students, and, citing a national study published in 2013 by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), they report charters barely, on average, outperform those traditional schools on standardized tests.

But that average masks the reality more than reveals it. In truth, we have forty-four different charter school laws and systems in this country. A close look at the CREDO study shows that in states where charters are rarely forced to close when their students are falling behind--in Arizona, Texas, Ohio, and others--charter students do underperform their socioeconomic peers in traditional public schools on standardized tests. In states where charter authorizers close failing charters, however--in Massachusetts, New York, Indiana, the District of Columbia, and others--charters outperform traditional public schools.

The truth is that charters have lived up to their billing in some places and been a disappointment in others. In one city, however, they have fulfilled the vision of even their most ardent supporters: that chartering would not only raise student achievement, but gradually replace the old system.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, 92.5 percent of public school students in New Orleans attend charters. The Tulane University economist Douglas Harris, who leads a research team focused on education reform, calls it "the most radical overhaul of any type in any school district in at least a century."

In Katrina's wake, a governor and legislature frustrated with New Orleans's chronic corruption and abysmal public schools placed all but seventeen of them into its new Recovery School District (RSD), created just two years before to take over failing schools. Gradually, the RSD converted them all into charters. Today it oversees fifty-seven charters in the city, while the old Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) oversees fourteen charters and operates five traditional schools. (The city also has four charters authorized directly by the state board of education and one independent state school.)

The city's two districts, unlike traditional districts, do more overseeing than operating; they steer more than they row. They authorize schools, negotiate performance contracts (charters), measure results, and close schools whose students are lagging behind. Not all the schools succeed; educating poor, minority students in the inner city is extremely challenging. But on a variety of measures, New Orleans is improving faster than any other district in the state, if not the nation. Indeed, it may soon surpass its state on many metrics, a rare feat for a major American city.

Before Katrina, most public schools were terrible. In 2005 the city ranked sixty-seventh out of sixty-eight districts in Louisiana, itself a low performer compared to other states. Last year, New Orleans was forty-first out of sixty-nine school districts in Louisiana.

Before Katrina, some 62 percent of students attended schools rated "failing" by the state. Though the standard for failure has been raised, only 7 percent of students attend "failing" schools today.

Before Katrina, only 35 percent of students scored at grade level or above on state standardized tests. Last year 62 percent did.

Before Katrina, almost half of New Orleans students dropped out, and less than one in five went on to college. …

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