Does New Orleans Show Charter Schools Work?

So it’s now been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and forced the evacuation of the city.

This also marks almost a decade of rebuilding efforts. In particular it’s been several years since the total reconfiguration of the New Orleans school system. Gone were the district schools and the traditional, astoundingly low performing, public school system that had been a problem for years.

Reformers constructed the education system using an almost entirely charter model. As Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek explained back in 2007, the all-charter plan was “an opportunity to re-create education as we know it.” Many other education reformers agreed.

It’s actually worked out pretty well, so it appears. According to this piece by Richard Whitmire at Real Clear Education:

What makes the normal “new” [in New Orleans education] is that KIPP has combined old-school traditions with new school academics: Central City is the highest performing middle school in the Recovery School District.

In another part of the city, I saw another flavor of new normal as I walked through Arthur Ashe Charter School with special education coordinator Milton Pereda, who explained that in only the past four years his school had seen the percentage of special education students rise sharply, from 22 to 37 percent. In most schools around the country, charter or traditional, that would be a cause for alarm.

But they’re proud of those numbers. It meant that families throughout New Orleans were discovering that Arthur Ashe, part of the FirstLine charter network here, was the place to be if your child had learning challenges. That’s a good thing.

Before the hurricane two-thirds of city schools (in 2004) had an “academically unacceptable” rating. Today more than half (57 percent) of New Orleans students are performing at grade level on state assessments. Only 5.7 percent of New Orleans public school students attended a failing school in 2013, compared to 65 percent in 2005. Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney talked about chartered New Orleans as a great model for the country’s education reform.

It is true, yes, that schools are performing better. But are they better because of charters and the competition they introduced? It’s an interesting idea, but probably not. The reality is that the biggest change to New Orleans public schools is not their governance structure; it’s just that different students seem to be attending the schools.

That’s because many of the poorest people in New Orleans, who had the lowest performing students, never came back to the city after the hurricane at all.

It’s true that the charters many have introduced many positive reforms in New Orleans. The district, after all, is still urban, very poor, and largely minority. But it’s important to put these reforms in context.

“One of the strengths of New Orleans is how well it can innovate and solve problems,” Leslie Jacobs, an education reform advocate who previously served on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, told U.S. News & World Report‘s Allie Bidwell.

Well maybe. There’s been a lot of innovation, yes, but there’s also been a lot of replacement of students, which probably matters more.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer