New Orleans’s education success story: A model worth following

The school reform efforts in New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 have been 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. (See my article, “Washed Up” in the Summer 2018 issue of Thinking Minnesota.)

As we celebrate National Charter Schools Week, we should reflect on New Orleans’s groundbreaking reforms and how they shook the foundation of American education and represent a model worth following. While the progress made in New Orleans’s public schools did not happen overnight, there are specific strategies that distinguish the city’s education. Patrick Dobard, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, highlighted 10 reasons why New Orleans’s schools are succeeding. I will share several of them below along with additional thoughts from my own research.

Aligned leadership for 13 years

Since Hurricane Katrina, the leaders managing our system of schools have shared a clear vision for local education. We believe that the people closest to children should be making decisions about their schools, because principals know their students better than a district administrator does. We know that schools need real autonomy and families deserve true accountability. We believe great talent is key, so we must recruit and support great educators. We maintain a passionate pursuit of equity and justice, setting these principles as the bedrock of each policy and plan we make. By uniting in these convictions, we have been able to make real, positive change.

The emergence of New Orleans’s new schools was not organic. The Recovery School District (RSD)—a special school district established in 2003 that is run by Louisiana to reconstruct chronically low-performing schools—played a huge role in New Orleans’s success story and had a strong partner in New Schools for New Orleans, which helped get the schools going with investment, bringing in talented leaders and teachers, and working to get the communities involved.

District bureaucracy does not make decisions for classrooms; principals, teachers, and networks do

In most districts, many aspects of how schools are run — from bell schedules to curriculum — are determined at the district level. In New Orleans, however, we know that teachers, principals and charter networks, not district administrators, are the experts on their students.

Ultimately, this enables school leaders to respond more quickly to their particular students’ needs. When parents send their child to a public school in our city, they know their principal runs that school based on a true knowledge of their child and their classmates, not on sweeping, districtwide mandates.

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.

High accountability standards: Only schools that meet the bar remain open

Since 2006, no charter operator with a school performing below the state’s academic requirements at the time of its renewal has been allowed to continue running that school. Though it is never easy to close or transition a school, we cannot allow students to remain in classrooms where their needs are not being met. Our community largely stands behind the practice; no parents want their children in a school where they aren’t being supported, challenged and educated. In a 2015 survey, around 60 percent of New Orleanian respondents agreed that that “schools that are consistently rated a D should be turned over to a different operator to be restarted.”

Because charter schools come with higher accountability, they are held to higher academic, financial, and organizational standards. Charters must meet academic benchmarks to stay active. They are subject to regular reviews, and if the schools fail the students, they are shut down. As mentioned above, 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.

Equitable citywide enrollment: Students can apply to any public school in New Orleans

In almost all U.S. districts, a child’s address determines which public school he or she will attend. This perpetuates inequity, as children from wealthier families end up in stronger schools with access to more opportunities. In New Orleans, there are no default neighborhood schools. Instead, families can apply to nearly all city public schools through OneApp, our unified enrollment process. Families apply for the schools they feel are best for their children. In the main round of this year’s OneApp, 82 percent of incoming kindergarten and ninth-grade applicants received one of their top three choices.

With the school system overhaul, charter schools brought more choice to New Orleans and freed its students from attendance zones. Families can choose what school fits their child best, and schools are able to offer a variety of academic approaches and programming to meet diverse needs.|

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.