Washed up

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans dramatically replaced its corrupt and failing public school system with charter schools. The results have been impressive.

It has been over 25 years since Minnesota became the first state to spark the fastest growing engine of change for public education: the charter school revolution.

By passing the nation’s first charter school law in 1991, Minnesota pioneered a model for the rest of the country to follow. The state’s charter school statute structurally reformed public education’s governance system to better serve students most in need of new opportunities.

Minnesota’s breakthrough in its provision of education services triggered other states to follow suit with charter-linked innovation aimed at addressing educational challenges and improving public education.

But Minnesota cannot run on past success. Its historic charter school movement has not maintained momentum, and other states have surpassed Minnesota’s once-revolutionary approach through unprecedented strategies that tackle education shortcomings.

None have had more breadth or depth than the school reform efforts in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 and decimated the New Orleans public school system. By replacing a traditional school system with charter schools, New Orleans launched the largest and most complete experiment in charter school success.

With a history of failing schools, low academic performance, misuse of finances, and leadership problems that predated the natural disaster, the New Orleans Parish school district had nowhere to go but up, and an all-charter school system led the way.

New Orleans’s groundbreaking reforms shook the foundation of American education and represent a model worth following.

Before the Storm

Prior to Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) governed all New Orleans’s public schools. The elected board set district policies and selected superintendents, but power struggles between district administration and the OPSB caused leadership to suffer a
high rate of turnover. Board members succumbed to bribes, and checks were inappropriately issued to retired, fired, or even dead employees.

In 2004, the FBI indicted dozens of board and district employees for criminal offenses involving millions of dollars in fraud and theft against the district. The district was on the verge of bankruptcy and faced hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

But OPSB’s legacy of corruption came with an even higher cost: students were captives in a failing school system and were not being given the education they deserved. New Orleans public schools were made up of predominantly minority and low-income families whose school choice was limited by financial constraints and determined by attendance zones.

Poor academic performance caused the Orleans Parish public schools to consistently rank as one of the lowest performing school districts in Louisiana. More than half of the schools OPSB governed were deemed “academically unacceptable” by Louisiana accountability standards. Mathematics and reading test scores were in the bottom tier across the state and the country, and the graduation rate was 10 percentage points below the state average. New Orleans was the second-lowest ranked district in the second-lowest ranked state in the country.

In the months leading up to Katrina, signs of rehabilitating the school system’s inadequacies emerged. New board members were elected to the OPSB and certain schools showed state test score improvement. But these developments did not create the catalyst of change the city needed.

New Orleans public schools remained a broken, top-down system. Its long-standing poor educational performance was failing its students and their families.

Then a natural disaster devastated the city and its public schools.

Amidst the tragedy, New Orleans found a silver lining: the chance to start over and rebuild its school system literally from the ground up.

The New Model

In Katrina’s wake, the Orleans Parish school system shut down. All 64,000 New Orleans public-school students were displaced and teacher contracts expired without renewal. All school district employees were laid off.

Unshackled from long-established bureaucracies and union rules, New Orleans could focus on creating a school system that fostered student achievement.

The Louisiana governor and legislature quickly transferred all “failing” public schools (which were almost all public schools in the district) from OPSB’s control to the Recovery School District (RSD)—a special school district established in 2003 that is run by the state to reconstruct chronically low-performing schools. RSD began gradually converting these traditional public schools to charter schools, and OPSB was left to run the few better- performing schools in New Orleans.

By 2014, 92 percent of the public schools in New Orleans were charter schools.

Why did state leaders choose charter schools?

With all the schools destroyed, the city needed a way to quickly get the district up and running to serve its students. The RSD was best equipped with the resources to make this possible, and it endorsed a charter strategy to do so.

While charter schools are publicly funded, they are independent of the local school district’s control and allowed to innovate. As a charter school system, the governance structure of New Orleans schools shifted from a centralized model of education to a decentralized model. No longer would a single entity (the district) operate schools and perform all other functions. New Orleans eliminated the conflict of interest that is created when the same organization has all the responsibility.

Nonprofit charter school organizations became the operators of the schools, the OPSB and the RSD were the overseers, and the government was the regulator. New Orleans schools now had more than one pair of eyes holding them responsible for promoting student achievement.

Because charter schools come with higher accountability, they are held to higher academic, financial, and organizational standards. Charters must meet pre-determined academic benchmarks to stay active. They are subject to regular reviews, and if the schools fail the students, they are shut down. New Orleans has had to revoke a school’s charter and replace it with a better one, something the school system was not able to do in the past.

Charter schools come with higher autonomy. School operations can be managed on-site. School leaders are free to make decisions over staffing, curriculum development, and budgeting. Financial barriers are eliminated, and schools can distribute education funds to best serve their students. Without tenure or a teachers’ union in New Orleans, there was more freedom to hire and retain great teachers and fire mediocre ones.

Charter schools also come with more choice. New Orleans students were freed from attendance zones. Teachers and principals could choose to teach and work at schools that fit them best, and those schools could offer a variety of academic approaches and programming to meet diverse needs.

A balance of accountability, autonomy, and choice equals true charter school success.

Effects on Academic Achievement

Reconstructing the public-school system dramatically transformed student achievement in New Orleans. The performance of New Orleans students rose steadily, compared to their peers in other Louisiana districts also affected by Katrina.

It is important to note that New Orleans did experience a loss in enrollment after the hurricane, but the type of students the school system served did not change. New Orleans continued to serve a student body largely made up of minority and low-income students. The percentage of New Orleans students who were economically disadvantaged was actually greater in 2014-15 (84 percent) than before the charter school conversion in 2004-05 (77 percent).

Within eight years of the system overhaul, the percentage of New Orleans students who were proficient on all state tests for all grades nearly doubled (35 percent in 2004-05 to 62 percent in 2013-14).

Within eight years of the system overhaul, the percentage of New Orleans elementary and middle school students who were proficient on state assessments—LEAP and iLEAP tests—nearly doubled (33 percent in 2004-05 to 63 percent in 2013-14).

Within eight years of the system overhaul, the 25-percentage point achievement gap between New Orleans students in grades K-8 and their state peers closed to a 9-percentage point difference. In 2005, only 33 percent of elementary and middle school students in New Orleans performed at grade level or above. By the end of the 2013-14 school year, 60 percent met or exceeded grade level expectations.

Within eight years of the system overhaul, New Orleans charter schools learned how to better support students with disabilities. Proficiency on state tests increased by 38 percentage points, and schools were more accountable to meeting these students’ needs.

Within eight years of the system overhaul, New Orleans high schools graduated more historically underserved students than the state. This included African American students, African American male students, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities. A year later, New Orleans’s overall graduation rate surpassed Louisiana’s.

And, in 2013, a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found New Orleans charter school students received more learning and outpaced the academic progress of their traditional public school peers in a year’s time. Greater learning growth was evident in both reading and math and was present among historically underserved students, as well.

Improvements in such a short time produced an upward change in the trajectory of student success that is nothing short of remarkable.

The Future of Chartering

It is worth reiterating that while these results are encouraging and impressive, there is still plenty of room for growth in public education in New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole. Long-term gains in New Orleans are evident, but it will be important to maintain this pace of growth. New Orleans is still a below-average school district in a low-performing state.

Nonetheless, the transition from traditional public schools to charter schools has altered the course of public education in the city. New Orleans schools are now more than ever a hub of equal opportunity in education for its entire community. No student
in New Orleans is forced to attend a particular school, and parents have the right to seek admission to any school in any neighborhood. There is a commitment to citywide choice, where solutions no longer come from a school district’s central office.

The city’s progress shows what is possible for its future. While the system layout is likely to change (the RSD transferred oversight authority of five schools back to OPSB in 2016 and nine in 2017), the structural reform established in New Orleans over 10 years ago triggered a much-needed cycle of improvement in public education.

The default way of delivering public education does not work for all communities, and centrally controlled school districts are certainly not the only possible approach to educational excellence.

Will the New Orleans model of urban-education reform spread? Could Minnesota reclaim its innovative charter school history by revamping its struggling urban schools in a similar way?

Overhauling an education system takes time, and not all schools will succeed. But New Orleans proves other cities can harness the benefits of a charter system while tailoring this structure to meet specific needs.