August 26, 2010; Source: Newsweek | From the outset, it was clear that groups of various ideological hues were going to use the devastation of New Orleans as a petri dish for testing and boosting ideas that might not be possible to implement at a large scale nationally, but could be plopped into post-Katrina New Orleans in the hope that something, anything might work. The most obvious example is the shift of New Orleans from traditional schools to charter schools.

Pre-Katrina, there was one charter school in the city. Last year, more than 60 percent of public school students in the city attended privately run charter schools. The outgoing schools superintendent, obviously a fan of charter schools, called Katrina “an opportunity to build . . . a new school system” based on the model of an “overwhelmingly publicly funded, predominantly privately run school system.”

Nine more schools have switched to charter status this year, which will boost the proportion of charter school pupils even higher. Charter schools outnumber “traditional” schools two-to-one. The charter operators range from the well-known national groups such as KIPP to locally created charters such as SciAcademy. As free-wheeling as they have been, the charters are facing problems with facilities financing, accountability, and operating costs.

Like typical nonprofits in a recession, there is even now a move toward consolidating some of the charters or getting them to share specific consolidated back office and support functions. The city has been operating in something of a crisis mode, trying almost anything in housing, health care, and education to replace the systems that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. As New Orleans begins to return to post-disaster normalcy, how much will the city’s leaders reign in and regularize what now seems to be systems and institutions that operate relatively unfettered.—Rick Cohen