New Orleans Becomes Nation’s First All-Charter School System

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NOLA School

May 28, 2014; Washington Post

It is hard to believe, but the New Orleans public school system—nominally the New Orleans Recovery School District—is entirely comprised of charter schools. After Katrina had devastated the entire New Orleans public school system, the state created the Recovery School District to run the system, and in doing so placed its bets on charter schools. This coming school year, all 33,000 pupils in the school district will have to apply for slots in the district’s 58 charter schools rather than enrolling in now non-existent neighborhood schools.

There’s no question in anyone’s mind that the Big Easy’s school system prior to Katrina was in terrible shape. For some observers, the storm allowed them to wipe away the existing infrastructure in one fell swoop rather than having to pursue the education reform battles of charter school advocates elsewhere in the nation.

Charter school proponents exulted now that the all-charter conversion milestone has been reached. “We’ve reinvented how schools run,” said Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, which has been a lead promoter of the charter conversion process in New Orleans. “If I am unhappy with service I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow. I don’t have to wait four years for an election cycle so I can vote for one member of a seven-member board that historically has been corrupt.”

According to the Post, the Orleans Parish school district fired some 7,000 employees after Katrina, most of them African-American, while the teachers hired for the charters have been much more demographically white, many drawn from Teach for America. The fired teachers have won a judgment for wrongful termination, with expected penalties and compensation to amount to more than $1 billion. Other racial issues have been surfacing, such as a federal civil rights complaint filed recently that New Orleans funneled white students into the better charter schools and shunted black pupils into the worst schools.

Given the pre-Katrina performance of the school system, it would be next to impossible for the new charter schools to have performed worse. Student performance on standardized math and reading has increased from 23 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in 2013 performing at grade level. However, improvements in school performance have been accompanied by massive infusions of federal money aimed at rebuilding the school system after Katrina, supplemented by generous grants from education reform funders like the Walton Family Foundation that perceive New Orleans as a grand and unique experiment for pursuing their agendas.

While New Orleanians are generally pleased with the reported improvements in school performance indicators, polls suggest that they are not wholly taken with the privatization of the school system, the end of neighborhood schools, or the loss of parental control over charter schools themselves. However, it appears that all of the New Orleans charters are managed by nonprofits, so at least for the moment not subject to charges that they are enriching private, for-profit school managers.

Building on their success in converting the New Orleans system, Kingsland and others are moving to replicate the model of an all-charter system in other cities. It may be that Katrina made New Orleans unique, and ed reform advocates might find other cities less easy to convince.—Rick Cohen

  • Regina Podhorin

    Was just in NOLA for a week and spoke with a number of residents. They like the move to Charter schools. Even spoke with a teacher in one of the high schools and she was very upbeat. Not something I expected. Now have a grandson there so was especially interested in how this was working.

  • Elizabeth Browning

    As an experienced educator, I relocated to New Orleans a year ago with high hopes and expectations for an exceptional approach to education based on a sound understanding of child development, best-practices in teaching and learning, and robust professional development for the city’s teachers.

    What I’ve found is de-facto segregation with 98% of New Orleans African-American children, from families living in poverty (eligible for Free and Reduced lunches), populating the free “open enrollment” public charter schools.”White flight” is significant. into selective-enrollment schools including charters that use high-stakes testing and lotteries, for-fee private and religious schools.

    The “open-entry” non-selective charters are primarily administered and staffed by people with little to no preparation as teachers. Primarily white graduates from prestigious out-of-state universities – with degrees other than Education, contracted by Teach For America for only two years before moving on into their chosen profession – are provided with a 5-week training in classroom control before facing New Orleans’ most vulnerable students. Two of the charter schools with whom I spoke had nobody on staff with expertise in Special Education and no plans to develop a program for supporting students with cognitive, emotional or physical challenges.

    Even within an “open enrollment” district policy, there are many ways in which public charter schools (which are self-regulated and exempt from state oversight) can rid themselves of “problem children” whose low scores on Louisiana’s LEAP test bring down their yearly numbers – on which their annual contract renewals rely.

    Documented scorn by charter school leaders for experienced teachers and anyone who graduates from a College of Education program reveals the ultimate goal –

    – NOT to share exemplary practices with New Orleans long-term resident educators
    – NOT to create a Community of Practice
    – NOT to share raw unedited data on which educators, researchers and statistics experts can make credible comparison and decisions

    The originally stated mission – to try multiple approaches to teaching and learning and share these in an open, inclusive “think tank” atmosphere – is certainly not true, and I doubt that it ever was. It’s an “Us Against Them” fight for private vs public control that will ultimately have negative consequences for the city’s children and their families once the massive amounts of government funding and a revolving door of 2- year untrained teachers is ended.