New Orleans Experiments With All-Charter School District

As students return to school this fall, some families in New Orleans will be in for a surprise. All of the city’s public schools have been shuttered for good. In an unprecedented move, New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) has decided to replace all of the city’s local public schools with charter schools--independent, government-funded schools run by private organizations and individuals. In a city notorious for its less-than-stellar educational track record, many residents are breathing a collective sigh of relief. Others worry that the RSD’s risky decision is a step too far.

In order to understand why an entire city would decide to permanently close its traditional public schools, we have to go back to pre-Katrina New Orleans, to schools that were doomed in more ways than one.

In the years before the storm, New Orleans’ school system was already in crisis. The nonprofit organization New Schools for New Orleans reports that in 2005, Louisiana schools were ranked 46th in the nation. 96% of high school students fell below basic proficiency in English, and 94% were less than proficient in math.  The system was over 300 million dollars in debt, and rampant fraud and corruption had prompted the FBI to run a field office out of New Orleans Public Schools headquarters. Just when it looked like New Orleans’ schools had hit bedrock, Hurricane Katrina hit the city, damaging or destroying 110 out of New Orleans’ 126 public school buildings. The apocalyptic wreckage forced officials to shutter most schools indefinitely and, according to the Washington Post, to fire 7,500 employees, including practically all of the city’s teachers.

As is often the case, tragedy and opportunity came hand in hand. In the coming months, the Louisiana state government placed 112 local schools under the jurisdiction of the RSD. While civil engineers reconstructed the city’s levees, educators and policymakers set to work rebuilding its education system. Among the first schools to reopen their doors were the charters.

Over the next several years, the Recovery School District increasingly embraced the charter school model, replacing dozens of failing traditional schools with privately run alternatives. Parents of students in the remaining public schools could choose to place their children’s applications in randomized charter school lotteries, and many did just that. By 2007, over half of New Orleans’ public schools were charters. More importantly, charter students’ test scores outmatched those of traditional public school students in every single grade. Charters became symbols of opportunity, and parents showed up in droves for a chance at enrollment for their children. Scores climbed, more charter schools gained accreditation, and the traditional public school began to lose relevance.

Which brings us to the present day:

At the end of this school year, only five traditional public schools remained in New Orleans’ Recovery School District.  They will not be reopening in the fall. Although it is tempting to pass immediate judgment on the city’s decision, charter schools’ ambiguous and varied track records provide ample evidence for both supporters and detractors.

Some citizens and experts are less than optimistic. They argue that charter schools’ superior scores are artificial--a result of unfair funding advantages and application discrimination. Because charter schools’ funding is redirected from the budgets of local schools, and because charters are free to engage in significant fundraising, some experts argue that charter schools hurt traditional public schools while reaping the benefits of extra cash.  Scores are further inflated, they claim, by the fact that charter schools are free to turn away students with learning difficulties or disciplinary problems. These factors, they argue, combine to give charter students a significant boost while relegating others to educational mediocrity or failure. When all schools switch to the charter model, the playing field will level, leaving everyone back where they started. Charter schools will no longer provide a significant advantage to anyone.

In addition, some argue that many charters operate more like juvenile detention centers than schools. In some charters, students must walk silently, in straight lines to and from class. Inflexible rules encompass everything from posture, to sock color, to exactly how a student should raise her hand in class. Kenyatta Collins, a 16-year old student at Lake Area New Tech wrote in an article for Time magazine, “The new charter schools that have opened in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina are beyond strict…It’s quite challenging for many New Orleans students to adapt to the rigid discipline structures since they come from environments that are nothing like that.” She warns charter schools, “If you treat students like prisoners, they will react like prisoners.”

Proponents of the charter model are quick to counter that no two charter schools are exactly alike. Some have strict disciplinary structures while others do not. Some receive funding advantages while others innovate to stretch limited budgets. Some provide valuable opportunities to the academically excellent while others foster the ideal environment for children who might struggle in traditional schools. This diversity is what sets charter schools apart, and it is a direct result of their philosophical, curricular, and administrative autonomy. Charter schools, they argue, are a much-needed step away from a one-size-fits-all educational paradigm and towards healthy diversity. Best of all, if parents decide that a particular school does not fit the needs of their child, they can choose a different one.

For some, the benefits of charter schools prove life-changing. The Recovery School District, now recognized by theBrookings Institution as the best in the nation for educational choice, is producing scores of success stories.

Tanara Thomas, recently featured in New Orleans’ Times-Picayune is one of those success stories. After years of displacement following Hurricane Katrina, Tanara started high school at Sci Academy, one of New Orleans’ most prominent charter schools. At Sci Academy, Tanara was placed in a small advising group led by a faculty member. She and the other group members met regularly throughout the next four years to set personal achievement goals and plan for college. Tanara and her classmates weren’t the only ones with high accountability standards. Teachers at Sci Academy participate in daily staff meetings, weekly coaching sessions, and perpetual calls to improve. Their high-quality instruction is starting to pay off. This fall, Tanara will attend Wesleyan University, one of the 20 most selective schools in the nation. Of the 52 students who graduated with her, 96% will attend four-year colleges.

The experiment in New Orleans is a groundbreaking test case in school choice, one that may raise more questions than answers for Christians interested in educational justice. Radical steps like those taken by New Orleans should cause us to question our assumptions about the nature of schools, the needs of pupils, and the role of the community in education. Conversations based on these questions will pave the way forward for future generations of students.

New Orleans charter schools have a long road to travel before they gain full acceptance and a lot to prove along the way. Their strength and their potential weakness is in their diversity, and their success or failure will largely hinge on parents’ ability to choose well for their children. That ability will increase with information, experience, and time. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation will be watching.

-Mackenzie Harmon is a student at Covenant College majoring in international studies.