After Katrina, School Reforms Make New Orleans Most Chartered City in U.S.
With help from a grant of $20.9 million from the federal No Child Left Behind charter school program, 18 charter schools, 13 of which are new, opened in the city following the hurricane. Only seven traditional public schools had reopened when operating schools were last counted, note American Enterprise Institute's Veronique de Rugy and Kathryn Newmark, the report's authors. Of these, only four remain under the control of the troubled Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), which had historically run public schools in the city; the other three are under the control of the state of Louisiana. Before Katrina, OPSB had operated 124 schools.
“Politicians, educators, and parents, long frustrated with the state of public education New Orleans, have been given the opportunity to build, almost from scratch, a new school system.”
Notably, the city's private schools proved more nimble than its public schools in responding to the crisis. By the spring of 2006 there were nearly 20,000 students enrolled in private schools, equal to the number that were back in public school and almost as many as before Katrina had struck.
Under OPSB, New Orleans had been home to 55 of Louisiana's 78 worst schools. Between 1998 and 2004 school enrollment dropped by 26 percent, from 82,000 to 65,000 students, while the population of the Orleans Parish itself decreased by less than 1 percent. Low test scores, high dropout rates, a record of poor management, and a high turnover in school superintendents plagued the district. Against the opposition of OPSB and the teachers union, serious reform efforts, which included state takeover of schools with an "academically unacceptable" rating four years running and the beginnings of a small charter school movement, began gaining traction by 2004.
Hurricane Katrina, however, helped dramatically speed up the timeline for reform of New Orleans public schools. Spurred by calls after the hurricane from Mayor Ray Nagin for the creation of a citywide charter school system, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco helped pave the way for the approval of 20 new charter school applications. In addition, earlier reform efforts were expanded by Governor Blanco and the state legislature to include the takeover of schools in districts declared to be "in academic crisis." This action relieved OPSB of responsibility for 102 of the 117 public schools that had remained under its control.
Hurricane Katrina may prove to be "the salvation of a school district that had been drowning for years," write de Rugy and Newmark. "Politicians, educators, and parents, long frustrated with the state of public education New Orleans, have been given the opportunity to build, almost from scratch, a new school system."
Now, the list of supporters for the charter school movement in New Orleans is growing. In June, the federal government awarded Louisiana $24 million to create more charters. And, perhaps one of the most positive signs comes from the interest expressed by universities and private foundations. Groups such as the Gates and Broad foundations, which had been reluctant to become involved in school reform efforts while OPSB held control, are now showing an interest in supporting the city's new educational landscape -- and giving hope to the city's residents that the charter school movement in New Orleans will continue.
Read "Hope after Katrina: Will New Orleans Become the New City of Choice?" in the fall issue of Education Next, coming in September. To request a pre-release copy of the article, contact Caleb Offley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Veronique de Rugy is a resident fellow and Kathryn Newmark is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.
Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.