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New Orleans's Charter School Experiment Is a Preview of the Coming Battle Over Education

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans's struggling public school system was dismantled and replaced mostly by charter schools—and what happened next shows the benefits and perils of other cities following suit.

by Peter Moskowitz
May 7 2016, 1:20pm

A New Orleans student jumps off a bus to enter McDonogh #35 Senior High School before the start of the school day on March 19, 2008. Photo credit: Mario Tama / Getty

In the fall of 2005, Louisiana's then-governor Kathleen Blanco passed a bill that created a radical education experiment in New Orleans. At the time, the city had been virtually emptied by Hurricane Katrina, and Blanco, in a speech in Baton Rouge, said that this situation was a "historic opportunity to start anew, to create an environment for a new birth of excellence and opportunity for the children and families of New Orleans."

What this meant was that New Orleans's struggling public school system was disassembled. Virtually overnight, all of New Orleans's public school teachers were fired, the city's school board lost control of all but 17 schools (they once operated close to 125), and more than 100 facilities were handed over to the Recovery School District, which was run by state-level bureaucrats with few ties to New Orleans. Since then, more than 90 percent of New Orleans schools have been operated by charters—a mixture of private nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies that operate independently from each other and are not beholden to a democratically elected board as public schools are.

Supporters of charters say they are more effective than traditional public schools because they can operate without the oversight of a centralized authority, letting them experiment more when it comes to their hiring practices, teaching methods, and curriculum. But anti-charter advocates dislike the schools for the same reason: Without a centralized coordinating body, parents and teachers' unions have less power to control how students are educated.

New Orleans schools essentially hit the reset button. Teachers (many of them black) had to reapply for their jobs in new, non-unionized schools, and hundreds of new teachers (many of them white, young, from outside of New Orleans, and working for nonprofits like Teach for America) replaced them. A system of school choice was implemented: Instead of going to their local neighborhoods schools, students had to apply for schools across the city. The idea was that this would allow parents and their kids to vote with their feet, forcing less successful schools to improve to compete for students.

The New Orleans experiment resulted in some successes, at least on paper: Test scores rose, dropout rates decreased, and so the strategy was copied by struggling school districts around the country. But now, after years of protests from parents and activists who want to see the schools returned to local control, the experiment may all be coming undone.

Last week, the Louisiana House Education Committee advanced legislation that would return every school taken over by the state back to local control. The bill unanimously passed the state Senate, and experts believe it will pass the House with ease. That means by 2018 or 2019, every school in New Orleans will once again be under the purview of the school board, not a state-appointed bureaucracy. It's unclear how many of the schools will remain charter schools, but according to local experts, including Deirdre Johnson Burel, the director of the New Orleans Public Education Network, it seems likely that many could return to being traditional public schools eventually.

"We have a generation of students that were used as an experiment," says Karran Harper Royal, an education advocate and parent of two sons who were educated in both the pre- and post-Katrina school systems. "And what do we have to show for it? A few rising test scores, but tens of thousands of kids out of school, and no community control of our school system."

A lot of the details of the bill's effect on schools are uncertain. Some activists, like Harper Royal, don't think it goes far enough in ensuring local residents have a say in whether schools stay charters or become traditional public schools again. That could explain why some charter operators are in favor of the bill, supporting it over other, less popular measures that would remove some of the independence charter schools currently operate under in Louisiana.

"The community is full of distrust—nobody trusts anybody right now," said Ken Ducote, the executive director of the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools, which represents about a dozen charter schools in the city. "But this bill will make things simpler and allow us to focus on the needs of our students, on poverty, and trauma and coping, not on governance structure."

But even with the schools likely turning back to local control, New Orleans's post-Katrina educational experiment may be soon replicated around the country, as more and more cities attempt to use state takeovers and charter schools to turn around school districts and more parents, teachers, and kids protest the loss of local control.


For more on education, watch our documentary 'Last Chance High'

There's some evidence much of the improvements New Orleans schools saw came from simply getting rid of students who were academically underperforming. In 2010, the Recovery School District was found to be using expulsions ten times as much as the national average; these schools also disciplined African American and poor students at much higher rates than white students. As noted in a New York Times op-ed from 2015, it's not clear how many kids have dropped out of these schools, but 26,000 16- to 24-year-olds in the New Orleans area were considered "disconnected" at the time, meaning they aren't working or in school.

Students with special needs or disabilities also have a harder time in New Orleans charter schools because there is little in the way of coordinated special needs policy between charter operators. Some schools had better special needs classes than others, but parents found it hard to figure out where exactly to enroll their kids with special needs; some schools have seemed actively hostile to parents who try to push for better special education, according to a 2014 NPR story.

The school choice system also meant that parents were sometimes forced to send their kids to schools a long ways away, a particular disadvantage for parents without cars, as well as students who take extracurriculars and aren't offered after-school bussing. And because there is no centralized system to create and implement policy at the independent charters, there is no clear way for parents to change or complain about the system, according to several sources interviewed for this story.

"It used to be if I had an issue with the school I could go to the school board representative and complain, I could organize other parents," says Ashana Bigard, a parent of two children currently going through New Orleans school system. "Post-Katrina you were on your own. Parents' voices just did not matter."

"We have a generation of students that were used as an experiment. And what do we have to show for it?"
—Karran Harper Royal

Despite the controversies surrounding charters, other states have mimicked New Orleans's path, seeking low-cost solutions and higher test scores. Michigan and Tennessee both have created separate districts for their low-performing schools that began operating in 2012, and eight other states are currently considering similar legislation that allow governors and legislatures to take over failing city schools. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and several other states have also taken over failing school districts. State takeovers most often happen in predominantly black, predominantly poor districts, according to a report released by the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive think tank and policy organization.

"State officials who may not have any experience in education look at the test scores of some of these districts, and they see their district failing and think, 'What's the alternative?'" says Kyle Serrette, the education policy director at the Center for Popular Democracy, a group that has been critical of charter schools, told VICE. "What they don't hear about is the failures in New Orleans and elsewhere."

As in New Orleans, these policies are often met with criticism: In Newark, students have been protesting the takeover of their schools for years. And in Michigan, a growing movement is challenging the emergency management law that allowed Detroit's schools to be taken over by the state (the same law allowed an emergency manager to make decisions in Flint that contributed to the city's water crisis).

Even though school takeovers are becoming more common nationally, what's happening in New Orleans may be a sign of things to come. The city's schools were taken over by state governments years before such policies became popular, and in a sense they provide a preview of the pros and cons: State control and charter schools can boost test scores, but can also create controversy and leave some students behind.

"For sure you're seeing a backlash," against the state takeover of schools said Tom Pedroni, a policy teacher at Wayne State University in Detroit. "And I'm optimistic things will change here too because of what's happening in New Orleans."

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