COMMENTARY: New Orleans uses disaster to reform broken public schools

Posted: July 5, 2018 at 1 a.m.

The big moments of historical importance don't go unremarked, but quieter milestones often pass with little notice unless we stop to commemorate them and note their significance. On July 1, one of those modest but meaningful events will occur when New Orleans marks a change that might sound like a dry bureaucratic reshuffling, but is in fact a remarkable event in the history of American education.

Recall that nearly 13 years ago, one of the effects of the Hurricane Katrina cataclysm was to largely wipe out the city's abysmal public schools. New Orleans' educational system was essentially rebuilt from the ground up as a laboratory for charter schools -- not a school district with a few charters sprinkled among traditional institutions, but an almost wholly charter-filled system largely run by the state of Louisiana.

The Recovery School District experiment proved successful; New Orleans public schools have improved faster than those of any other city in the nation over the past decade. But 80 percent of the schools were run by the state's Recovery School District. An indication of the RSD's success -- and of New Orleans' resurgence as a thriving metropolitan center -- is the state's decision to hand over responsibility for the school district to a locally elected school board on July 1.

The school board will then oversee a district where 98 percent of students attend a public charter school. No other school district in America comes close to that distinction. By 2020, the last two district-operated schools will have converted to charters, and the Orleans Parish School Board will oversee the nation's first school district composed entirely of charter schools.

The contrast with pre-Katrina education in New Orleans is dramatic. In 2005, Orleans Parish public schools ranked next-to-last in performance among Louisiana's 68 parishes. In 2004, 60 percent of public school students in New Orleans attended a school with a performance score in the bottom 10 percent of the state.

The schools needed change; the district needed reform. Progress would come from a most unlikely starting point. Hurricane Katrina's flooding and winds damaged schools, destroyed materials and displaced 64,000 students. The damage to school buildings alone was estimated at more than $800 million. Even before the storm, the district was broke, and had been looking for a $50 million line of credit just to meet payroll.

Louisiana turned this dire situation into an opportunity. In 2003, the governor and state legislature had created a Recovery School District to take over the state's worst public schools, including five in New Orleans, which the RSD had turned into charters. After the storm, the legislature placed all but 17 of New Orleans' 127 public schools in the RSD. In 2006, when 25,000 students returned to the city's public schools, 54 percent enrolled in a charter.

Over the next nine years, the RSD handed virtually all its schools over to charter operators, and academic progress surged.

In 2004, 54 percent of public high school students graduated within four years. In 2017, 73 percent did. In 2004, only 37 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college. In 2017, 61 percent of graduates did. Before the storm, only 33 percent of students scored at grade level or above on state exams. By 2017, that number had increased to 59 percent, an improvement rate almost three times as fast as the state's average.

During the transformation between 2004 and 2017, one characteristic has remained constant: the majority of students in New Orleans are economically disadvantaged.

The Orleans Parish School Board won't directly operate schools; school leaders will handle day-to-day operations at charters, so those who know students best will make the decisions that affect their learning. But the district will still play a central role, setting policy and overseeing school quality. It will authorize new charters and hold existing schools accountable for performance, replicating successful ones and replacing those that fail with stronger operators. The board will also oversee the distribution of resources and facilities, trying to ensure equal opportunity for all families. And it will run the citywide enrollment system, called OneApp.

Traditional public-school systems are often bureaucratic behemoths, with administration costs sapping funds that would be better dedicated to students. By contrast, in New Orleans, the district's central office and budget will be a lean operation, required by state charter-school law to devote 98 percent of funds directly to schools, spending only 2 percent on central office administration -- because those running schools, not central office staff, know best how to educate children.

As charter schools proliferate across the country, their organization into New Orleans-style charter-only school districts under local control may be the next step in the continuing evolution of American education.

Commentary on 07/05/2018