Credit: Getty Images

Last year 2.9 million children attended 6,700 charter schools in America—public schools independent of 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. Last year, 73 percent graduated from high school in four years, two points below the state average, and 59 percent of graduates entered college, equaling the state average.

And according to a 2015 CREDO study, between 2006 and 2012 New Orleans’s charter students gained nearly half a year of additional learning in math and a third of a year in reading, every year, compared to similar students in the city’s non-chartered public schools.

Because the OPSB was only allowed to keep schools that scored above the state average, the failing schools were all in the RSD. In the spring of 2007, the first full school year after Katrina, only 23 percent of RSD students tested at or above grade level. Seven years later, fully 57 percent did. As Figure 1 shows (page 68), RSD students in New Orleans have improved almost four times faster than the state average.

Little of this appears to be the result of demographic changes. In the 2012-13 school year, 84 percent of public school students qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 77 percent before Katrina. And census data tells us that poverty among residents younger than eighteen rose from 32 percent in 2007 to 39 percent in 2013, approaching pre-storm levels. Some of the improvement could reflect a small increase in white students, who rose from 3 to 7 percent of the total over the past decade. But African Americans still make up 85 percent of the city’s students (down from 93 percent). And they have made the greatest gains relative to their counterparts statewide, no doubt because the RSD schools, which have improved the most, are 91 percent black. If one counts only African Americans, New Orleans had the lowest test scores in the state before Katrina, 8 percentage points below the state average. Last year the city’s African American scores exceeded the state average by five points.

If anything, today’s students may be more disadvantaged than they were before Katrina, because they lived through the hurricane and the subsequent spike in violent crime. A survey of more than 1,000 youths aged ten to sixteen, taken from 2012 to 2014, found that nearly 20 percent showed signs of post-traumatic stress, four times the national rate.

In short, a radically new governance model—a recovery district that converted all of its schools to charters—has produced what some experts believe to be the most rapid improvement in American history.

How did this turnaround come about? Hurricane Katrina opened the door, temporarily eliminating the normal political obstacles to change by emptying the city and effectively putting the teachers’ union out of business. The schools also received a flood of philanthropic money. But the transformation would never have occurred without the efforts of one extraordinary woman.

“Leslie Jacobs,” says Paul Pastorek, a former state superintendent, “is a force of nature, multiplied by ten.” Perpetually in a hurry, Jacobs married and graduated from Cornell University at twenty-one, had her first of two children at twenty-three, and by thirty-three was not only elected to the OPSB but had built her father’s small insurance agency—with her brother—into one of the largest in the South.

Jacobs dates her radicalization to an evening in 1995, when the teachers’ union asked her to judge high school students’ college essays, as part of a scholarship program. “I was president of an insurance brokerage firm, and I could not hire any of these kids for an entry-level position as a receptionist,” she remembers. “Their essays had a failure of noun-verb agreement, of sentence structure, paragraphing, punctuation, much less the ability to convey something persuasively. I looked at their transcripts, and they all had straight As. It was the most depressing night.”

Jacobs asked the central office how tenth graders did on their first attempt at the Graduate Exit Exam (GEE), which they had to pass to graduate. “We had schools where 100 percent of the kids failed the GEE the first attempt, irrespective of their grades. Our A students couldn’t read, couldn’t write, couldn’t pass their first attempt at a graduation exam that at that time was at a seventh-grade level.”

“We have to do something,” Jacobs told her colleagues on the school board. “We are just lying to these children.” She proposed that they “reconstitute” failing high schools: close them down and restart from scratch, with a new principal and new teachers. Her colleagues stonewalled, and after three years and three months on the board, she threw up her hands and quit.

But it is not in Leslie Jacobs’s nature to give up. Instead, she convinced newly elected Governor Mike Foster, a Republican she had worked with on workers’ compensation reform when he was in the state senate, to put her on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE—pronounced like the cow). Foster was not exactly a progressive reformer: he had promised to abolish the board, give back federal Goals 2000 money, and focus the schools on character education.

But Jacobs kept after him, and it was not long before the new governor succumbed. “I remember sitting to his left at one meeting,” she says. “I took a pen in my hand, and I said, ‘Governor, this pen is your magic wand. Exactly what law do you want to pass to teach character education, when we can’t teach kids to read?’ ” Foster finally told her to do what she wanted with the board—as long as it didn’t involve a constitutional amendment.

What she wanted was an accountability system: statewide standardized tests; “school performance scores,” based on test scores, attendance rates, and graduation rates; help for schools with low scores, in the form of money and consultants (Louisiana’s best public school teachers); and forced reconstitution of schools rated failing for four years in a row. “I wanted the pain of doing nothing to be more painful than the risk of doing something,” she says. “That was the whole paradigm for me, why I went up to the state board.”

Her second epiphany came in 2003, when the valedictorian at Alcée Fortier High School, in the Uptown area of New Orleans, failed the GEE exam despite five attempts and could not graduate. There was no protest, just “a deafening silence.” It was emblematic, Jacobs says, “of a city that had given up all hope in its schools. I knew then that the only way to mobilize people was to prove that it could work—that we could successfully educate ‘these kids,’ poor, inner-city kids, to much higher levels. Folks needed to believe success was possible.”

She decided that Louisiana should create a special school district to take over failed schools, a brand-new idea in education circles, drawn from her business experience. “It was really modeled after bankruptcy law,” she says. “When a business is bankrupt, a judge will make the decisions about what drastic changes he will allow so the business can remain a viable entity. In essence, a business gets to start over, and that’s what we meant the RSD to be. We would take the failing school, strip it of the district’s policies—which in New Orleans could easily stack up to be two feet high—strip away any contracts, including the collective bargaining agreement, and take the building, the students, and the money out of the district, so the school could start over.”

Unfortunately, her brainchild required a constitutional amendment, and that needed a two-thirds majority in the legislature, followed by a simple majority on the ballot. Again Governor Foster relented, and Jacobs led a statewide campaign. In New Orleans, the school board, city council, and teachers’ union all opposed the amendment. “But I had served an African American district,” she says. “I had walked the district; I answered my phone. I knew parents wanted good schools for their kids.” The amendment passed in 2003 by more than 60 percent—both statewide and in New Orleans.

Figure 1. Percent of Students at Basic (Grade Level) or Above
on Standardized Tests, 2007-2014*
* The 2014 exams were more difficult because they were more closely aligned with the Common Core standards, which explains why progress leveled off in the RSD and the state and OPSB scores fell. The 2013 and 2014 data excludes end-of-course high school tests, which replaced the old Graduate Exit Exams. But on the “end-of-course” tests that replaced it, the percentage of RSD high school students in New Orleans who scored “excellent” or “good” rose from thirty-one in 2011-12 to forty-seven in 2013-14—more than twice as fast as the state average.

At the time, the school district was as corrupt as it was incompetent, and state leaders from both parties were fed up. The FBI had investigators stationed at district headquarters: after the storm at least twenty-four people were indicted, including the board chairwoman, who went to federal prison for taking $140,000 in bribes. In 2005 the federal government threatened to take away the state’s Title 1 money if it did not intervene, so the state superintendent, Cecil Picard, appointed a receiver to take control of OPSB’s finances.

After the storm, when a bankrupt OPSB announced that it could not reopen any schools in 2005-06, Jacobs saw a huge opportunity. She suggested that the RSD take over any New Orleans school that had a performance score below the state average, then reopen it as a charter.

Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco had relied on New Orleans voters, African Americans, and teachers’ unions to get elected. Still, she sponsored the bill, and even managed to quash an amendment to require collective bargaining in the RSD.

A few years before, Louisiana’s senior senator, Democrat Mary Landrieu, had secured a $1 million earmark for the University of New Orleans to help it turn a group of public schools near its campus into charters. After months of discussions, the OPSB had declined the offer, leaving her livid. When she learned that the U.S. Department of Education had $30 million of unspent charter money, she convinced Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to make most of it available for new charters in New Orleans. And because it was the only way the city could afford to reopen schools, the OPSB started chartering schools that had escaped the flood.

Jacobs set about building a support network for the new charters. She helped bankroll Sarah Usdin, a former teacher and Louisiana director for Teach for America, to found New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), a nonprofit designed to provide whatever help the charters needed. Together they convinced the New Teacher Project, where Usdin had also worked, to train 100 teachers a year for New Orleans. Teach for America, which recruits top college graduates to teach for two years in underserved communities, was already sending teachers to New Orleans, but its leaders agreed to triple their numbers. With foundation money, NSNO incubated ten new charter schools over the next five years, providing coaching and funding for their first eighteen months.

Jacobs and the acting RSD superintendent, Robin Jarvis, a deputy state superintendent, asked the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to vet the RSD’s charter applications, to ensure quality control. To their chagrin, it recommended only six of forty-four applications the first year. Committed to quality, Jacobs and Jarvis swallowed hard but agreed. That meant that the RSD somehow had to open its own schools—three of them that spring of 2006, more in the fall.

“Basically, we became the dog that caught the bus,” Jacobs says. “We had nothing: no schools, no buildings, no cafeteria workers, no buses.”

A report from an organization called Rethinking Schools captured what happened next: “When 17 RSD schools opened in mid-September 2006, students were confronted with all-out chaos. Textbooks had not arrived; buildings were not furnished with desks, let alone computers.… In January 2007, when newspapers reported that over 300 children had been waitlisted, even for RSD schools, the Recovery District rushed two additional schools into operation. Class size in some buildings ballooned to nearly 40:1.”

In February, Cecil Picard died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Paul Pastorek, a New Orleans attorney, had served for eight years on BESE, three of them as chair, after Jacobs recommended him to Governor Foster. “Mary Landrieu called me the day after Cecil died,” Pastorek recalls. “Mary said, ‘I want to put Paul Vallas into Cecil’s place as state superintendent, because the state superintendent runs the RSD.’ ” Vallas, who was advising the mayor’s Bring Back New Orleans Commission, had run school districts in Chicago and Philadelphia, where he managed a portfolio of forty contracted schools, fifty-six charter schools, and more than 200 district-run schools.

Given Vallas’s experience, Pastorek thought he would be better suited to running the RSD than acting as state superintendent. “So the next thing you know, I got a call from Governor Blanco, who said, ‘Why don’t you run the state department and appoint Vallas?’ ”

Pastorek laughed. He had just bought a house on a golf course, and he was looking forward to playing every day. But Blanco persisted, and a week later he finally gave in.

As residents migrated back into the city, the overriding challenge was to get enough buildings open. “We didn’t have one building ready in March for 10,000 new students the next fall,” Pastorek says. “And we didn’t have one person in the office working on construction. So Paul worked on the academics, I worked on the facilities. I had no cash flow, no line of credit, no working capital, but we started building new school buildings before anyone else started. We loaned the capital side [of RSD] huge amounts of money, which made our operating budget anemic.” Then he worked out a deal that allowed him to incur contracts and invoice the Federal Emergency Management Agency on an expedited basis when the bills came through.

All that summer he pushed to get modular buildings constructed, showing up at construction sites, holding conference calls, screaming at those who hadn’t met their deadlines.

The Friday before Labor Day, 2007, with schools due to open on Tuesday, the buildings still weren’t finished. “They had to pour all this pavement—parking lots and stuff—over the weekend so you could actually get onto the campuses. On one campus, the concrete pour was supposed to start at four thirty in the morning. So I got there at four o’clock, and there wasn’t anybody out there at all. They should have been forming and putting metal down, and rebar, all this kind of stuff. I’m an old construction lawyer, so I knew. I started callin’ people and raisin’ hell.”

Meanwhile, Vallas oversaw charters and ran schools. He treated his RSD-run schools as much like charters as possible, but it soon became obvious that they couldn’t keep up, particularly the high schools. Motivated parents were flocking to charters; the RSD high schools became dumping grounds for those paying less attention and for students dropping in and out of school. Their average entrant was four years below grade level, and every year almost half their students were new. So rather than preserve a two-tier system, Vallas and Pastorek embraced Jacobs’s original plan. The last RSD-run school closed a year ago.

In the early years, the reforms elicited bitter resistance.

Race is a wound that festers beneath the surface of every issue in New Orleans. In the 1840s, when the first public schools opened, free blacks were banned and Louisiana made it a crime to teach a slave to read. After Reconstruction, local officials limited black education to five years. When federal courts forced integration in the 1960s, whites abandoned the system en masse.

At the time, two-thirds of the city’s residents were black. After the civil rights movement enfranchised them, they won control of city government and the public schools, and public-sector jobs became their path to the middle class. Corruption and patronage were the norm in the land of Huey Long and Edwin Edwards, and many black leaders figured it was their turn. In the schools, their children paid the price.

When the OPSB, in the wake of Katrina, was forced to lay off its 7,500 employees, three-quarters of them were black. Based on the data available, it’s a fair guess that less than a third were later hired by the RSD or charters, or rehired by the OPSB. To make matters worse, white reformers at BESE and the RSD took over the schools, and young, white teachers flooded the city. “Teach for America was the biggest slap in the face,” says Caroline Roemer Shirley, who runs the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. “I don’t have a job here, and you gave it to a twenty-two-year-old that’s never been in the classroom? There’s a lot of hostility about that.”

On surveys, a quarter to a third of African Americans have consistently expressed anger about the reforms, according to Jacobs. “They want the schools returned to the OPSB, they resent charter schools, they’re not supportive of the RSD, and they’re angry. It’s the same people who feel that their power has been taken from them and what happened post-Katrina is a white conspiracy against them.”

As the new system developed, there were enough flaws to feed the arguments of the critics. The RSD has had to discipline charters for trying to avoid special education students or deny them appropriate services. It has found nepotism in more than one school. Its schools still suffer from high truancy rates, as most inner-city schools do. And though fifteen charters have been closed, some marginal schools manage to survive.

One of my daughters joined Teach for America three years ago and landed in New Orleans, in a high-poverty neighborhood. During her first year, her K-8 charter school faced closure if it did not raise its test scores dramatically. Its charter management organization (CMO), a nonprofit that runs six charter schools in New Orleans, sent in a new leader to handle operations so the principal could focus on academics, hired full-time aides for the fourth- and eighth-grade classes, and pulled out all the stops on remediation and test prep. Its scores soared, the state raised its grade from an F to a C, and BESE renewed its charter. But the school continued to struggle with student discipline, and the next year it fell back to a D.

Given these realities, no one is claiming that New Orleans schools are perfect. Their most ardent supporters acknowledge that with only 62 percent of students testing at or above grade level, they still have a long way to go. Yet their progress has been unprecedented. What can other cities learn from New Orleans’s success?

Ask any of the city’s charter principals that question and you will hear the same answer: We can hire good teachers, fire mediocre ones, and spend our money in whatever way works best for our kids. Most of the key decisions in New Orleans get made at the school level, not the district level.

“If something does not work for my children here at Behrman, be it a teacher, be it a textbook, I can get rid of it,” says Rene Lewis-Carter, principal of Martin Behrman Charter School, where more than 80 percent of the largely African American students pass their standardized tests. “I got to handpick teachers—I’d never been able to do that before.” And those teachers “understood that things were different, that if they did not perform, they didn’t have to be here the very next day. Everyone understood the sense of urgency.”

Sabrina Pence, who ran the charter that pioneered the use of educational software in New Orleans, says that would have been impossible in a traditional district. “I was a principal in a district school, and I only controlled a small amount of my budget. I got $14,000, for paper and supplies. If there is one reason I love being in a charter school, that’s it—prioritizing your resources around your strategy.”

New Orleans has also created different kinds of schools to meet the needs of different children, a second reason for its success. There are “no excuses” schools, with strict discipline, long school days and years, and a laser-like focus on getting poor, black children into college. But there is also a Montessori school, where children are free to pursue their own interests and each class contains a three-year age span. There are schools with a special focus on science and mathematics, technology, creative arts, and language immersion. There are schools that offer the demanding International Baccalaureate program, a military and maritime high school, and three alternative high schools for students who are overage, far behind, or have been expelled.

Every year, more alternatives appear. Bricolage Academy, an elementary school that aims for racial and income diversity and uses project-based learning to stimulate critical thinking, opened in 2013. A charter high school has created a career and technical education program, in which students earn industry certification from a local community college. Many CMOs now use educational software to help children learn at their own pace and teachers spend more time with those who need help. Several have created programs for students with emotional and behavioral problems.

In a system with such variety, it makes no sense to force students to attend particular schools. Hence no one in New Orleans is assigned; every family chooses. With the exception of a handful of selective OPSB schools and two international schools that have language requirements, all are open to everyone. (Siblings get preference, and in K-8 schools half the seats are reserved for kids from nearby neighborhoods.) All RSD and most OPSB schools provide transportation.

After the flood: Schools like the Lower Ninth Ward’s Lawless High School were gutted by Hurricane Katrina.

With choice, a culture has grown up in which parents move their children if they are not happy. Some 86 percent of students attend a school other than the one closest to their home. On a 2011 survey, 90 percent of parents agreed that it was important to be able to choose their child’s school. On another, parents named academics the most important factor in their choices—though a 2015 analysis showed that location and extracurricular activities, such as sports, also play an important role. Those factors being equal, however, parents clearly prefer schools with higher performance scores.

The third big success factor is accountability. When families choose, public dollars follow their children, so school operators are in direct competition for funds. The more students they attract, the more money they get. Schools that lose enrollment sometimes close due to financial problems. But the consequence that motivates them even more is the threat of closure. Everyone knows their job is on the line if students aren’t learning, so they often pull together and do what it takes, no matter how difficult.

“You as an individual teacher, you can’t be stagnant, not in this day of charters,” says Nolan Grady, who has taught math for more than forty years at a New Orleans high school. “You have to constantly reflect, review, and improve. You don’t have the job security you had with the old system. That’s a hard pill, but it’s a reality. It makes you work harder.”

BESE has revoked or not renewed ten charters since 2005, while five charter school boards have voluntarily closed their schools due to academic and/or enrollment problems. So the threat is real, and it keeps all adults on their toes. In contrast, teachers in traditional schools may know their students are failing, but turning that around—particularly with poor, minority students—is difficult. Most teachers have lifetime tenure, so why make heroic efforts?

If the state board can continue to replace the lowest-performing charters with new schools run by the highest-performing CMOs, not only will individual schools be motivated to improve, but the city’s mix will continually improve. Jay Altman, a founder of the city’s first charter who now runs a CMO called FirstLine Schools, puts it well: “If we can keep an accountability system and say, ‘Here’s the bar, and it’s set high, and if you can’t meet it, someone else is going to run your school,’ New Orleans could become the only city in the country where every kid goes to a good school.”

A fourth key to New Orleans’s success is its ability to create school cultures that support learning. Children tend to meet the expectations of adults, and for too long in New Orleans, those expectations were set woefully low. Building on the new standards put in place by Jacobs’s accountability system, charter schools have reset them.

Too often, teachers and administrators in high-poverty schools assume that their students arrive with the motivation they need; little effort goes into creating it. Charter leaders in New Orleans typically view motivating students as their first task. “It’s huge,” says Gary Robichaux, a former teacher who founded a CMO called ReNEW, to embrace the city’s toughest challenge: taking over entire schools with their student bodies intact, rather than opening new schools one grade at a time. “We won’t hire someone who thinks our kids don’t want to learn—that’s their job, to create that motivation. Traditional teachers’ colleges don’t train their teachers to do that, but in high-poverty schools, it’s everything.”

When ReNEW took over its first schools, Robichaux and his staff brought students in for an extra week before school, to reset the culture. “After Thanksgiving break, we took a day for culture. After Christmas break, the same. After Mardi Gras, again. We revisit what we want the culture to look like. We show all the kids their data on reading: ‘You’re in eighth grade, reading at a third-grade level, we’ve got to fix this.’ We try to motivate them.”

Culture change involves teachers as well as students, of course. Most charters have embraced the use of data to manage instruction, and teachers have had to learn an entirely new way of operating. At least every seven weeks students are given diagnostic tests, which provide teachers with data to tailor instruction to students’ needs. Teachers have coaches or mentors who visit their classrooms regularly and give them feedback.

Which brings us to the fifth success factor: talent. Creating excellent public schools in a poor community is incredibly difficult, and it requires special talent. New Orleans has augmented its supply of good teachers through Teach for America and the New Teacher Project, but finding effective school leaders has been harder.

“Even with good systems, the school will fail if the leader is not strong, not motivating, not good at discipline,” says Robichaux. “We tried hard to have veteran local people from within the schools, and in most cases they didn’t work out—though we have two doing excellent jobs.” More often, he says, it’s been younger teachers, with six to eight years of experience, who have taken on the leadership challenge and pushed the schools further, faster. “I think they’re not set in their ways. A lot of them have worked in excellent schools, so they’ve seen that model, they’ve experienced it. I think it’s a reference for excellence that some veteran people that have been in the systems for a long time don’t have.”

None of this is unique. Cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Denver have given traditional public schools more autonomy and accountability—though less than New Orleans. They have created new schools, given families a choice of different models, and invested in teacher talent and strong school leaders who can transform school cultures.

What truly sets New Orleans apart is the RSD’s governance system. No other large city has a system in which the central administration no longer operates schools. This is a fundamental difference, and it gives New Orleans two big advantages.

First, it makes it far easier to close failing schools. A traditional school district employs all principals, administrators, teachers, aides, nurses, custodians, and lunch room workers. They usually belong to unions, have collective bargaining rights, and vote in school board elections, which have notoriously low turnouts. So it becomes risky for local school board members to close a failing school or lay off failing teachers. That’s why change in districts with elected school boards is usually incremental: too often the board is a political captive of its employees.

A handful of cities, like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., have attempted to get around this political problem by transferring power over schools from school boards to mayors. Mayors are far better known to voters than school board members, have to answer to far bigger constituencies than teachers’ unions, and hence, the thinking goes, can take more decisive action. And indeed, many mayors who have taken over urban school systems have made bold changes. But they have also experienced political backlash. Former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was voted out of office after making sweeping changes to that city’s schools, including school closures and teacher firings, though his successors kept his reforms in place. His counterpart in New York City, Michael Bloomberg, also imposed wrenching changes on the city’s schools that boosted test scores. He was succeeded, however, by Bill de Blasio, who was elected on an anti-charter, anti-school-closure platform and has been battling against a plan supported by the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, to lift the current statewide cap on charters, so they can expand in New York City.

In New Orleans a state board—partly elected, partly appointed—oversees the RSD, so it is more insulated from such gyrations in local politics. Even more important, school closures have been far easier in New Orleans than in other cities, because charters are far easier to close than traditional public schools. They don’t rally or vote as a block to defend closed schools. Parents and staff at a few schools have protested, but most have gone quietly. And other CMOs have lined up to run schools in the vacated buildings.

The second advantage has to do with the difference between overseeing schools and actually running them. In a traditional system, the energy of the board and central administration gets sucked into operations. They have to hire staff, assign them to schools, negotiate union contracts, make sure the buses run on time, and deal with broken water mains. They run from crisis to crisis, often losing sight of their core purpose.

In the RSD model, central administrators don’t worry about such issues; school leaders and their CMOs do. Central administrators become skillful buyers of educational programs, and they concentrate on solving system-wide problems. Since it decided to get out of the business of operating schools, the RSD has done an impressive job of both.

In 2012, for example, the RSD launched a computerized enrollment system, OneApp, that gives all families an equal shot at all schools (except the nine OPSB charters, some of which are selective, that have refused to join). This makes it more difficult for schools to only admit the best students and avoid the worst. Families list up to eight choices, in order, and a computer program matches students with available seats. Last year 80 percent got one of their top three choices.

The RSD and OPSB have also collaborated on new policies, such as one designed to limit expulsions. They have launched a truancy center for students at risk of dropping out, designed to connect families with social services before getting the courts involved. And a new therapeutic program for children with severe mental health and behavioral problems will open in the fall.

In the early years, some parents complained that charters were not interested in serving their children with learning disabilities, and the Southern Poverty Law Center sued on their behalf. The RSD and OPSB have worked together to address the issue. The OneApp system means most schools can’t avoid enrolling kids with special needs, and a new financing structure provides extra money for kids with extra needs—up to three times the norm. The two districts also developed a city-wide fund for schools that have particularly expensive special needs students. New Schools for New Orleans has committed $3.4 million over three years to help charter schools implement new special education programs, and the U.S. Department of Education has awarded NSNO and six partners a three-year grant to improve special education training for teachers and school leaders.

Meanwhile, test scores of special education students have surged. In 2005, only 11 percent tested at or above grade level; by 2013, 44 percent did, exceeding the state average by a point. In 2003, only 10 percent graduated on time; a decade later, 47 percent did.

With all this progress, the plaintiffs settled their lawsuit last January, requiring nothing beyond what had already been done. Together with the judge and the defendant, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a letter to the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, praising the RSD for its efforts to create equal opportunity for all.

Will the New Orleans model spread? Many believe that unlikely, because it took a hurricane and a flood to make it possible. But consider what happened after the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, which killed 6,000 people in Galveston, Texas, in 1900.

To rebuild their city, Galveston’s business and professional elite convinced the governor and the state legislature to impose a new form of governance: a commission that centralized all executive and legislative power in its five members’ hands.

The model worked so well that within twenty years the “Galveston Plan” had spread to more than 500 cities and evolved into the “council-manager” form of government, still the dominant model in cities with fewer than 250,000 people.

In similar fashion, other states and cities are already emulating New Orleans. Tennessee, Michigan, and Georgia have enacted recovery districts. New Jersey is following New Orleans’s lead in two cities where it has taken over failing districts, Newark and Camden. Leaders in Indianapolis, Cleveland, Columbus, Memphis, Denver, Oakland, Hall County, Georgia, and a few smaller cities have made bold moves in the same direction. Emergency managers in two insolvent Michigan school districts have turned all their schools over to charters. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has consulted Paul Pastorek on how to sort out Detroit: the majority of the city’s students are in charters, but they are authorized by fourteen different organizations, so no one has the power to steer. In late April Governor Snyder proposed that a new Detroit Education Commission, appointed by the mayor and governor, hire an education manager who would create performance standards for all public schools, both traditional and charter, close schools that don’t measure up, and create a common enrollment system like OneApp.

There is enormous resistance to such proposals, of course, lead by the teachers’ unions. But forty-three districts already have at least 20 percent of their students in charters. If just a few districts prove that the New Orleans model can work elsewhere, others may join in. Success, after all, has a way of overcoming all obstacles.

David Osborne

David Osborne is a senior fellow and director of the Reinventing America's Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute. He is the author or coauthor of five books, including The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis.