Charter School Lessons from New Orleans

Originally published in U.S. News and World Report, August 18, 2015

NEW ORLEANS – When Hurricane Katrina surged through the Gulf of Mexico into Louisiana on August 29, 2005, the 56,000-student public school system here, already crippled by corruption and incompetence, was wiped out. Buildings were suddenly uninhabitable. Over 7,000 employees, many of them homeless, found themselves on “disaster leave without pay” and eventually unemployed.

State authorities and school reformers saw an opportunity born of necessity. Even before the storm, Louisiana officials had set up a special state authority to take over the worst schools in a school system where only half the students earned diplomas. After Katrina, the Louisiana legislature turned over 80 percent of New Orleans’ 126 schools to the Louisiana Recovery School District with a mandate to recreate them as charter schools. A decade later, charters educate over 90 percent of the city’s public school students, the percentage of New Orleans students passing the state’s standardized tests has nearly doubled, to 62 percent, and the district’s graduation rate has climbed to 73 percent – a renaissance aided by millions of dollars in federal and philanthropic funding and instructional reinforcements through Teach for America and other organizations, but impressive improvements nonetheless in a city beset by poverty.

Many school reformers point to The Big Easy’s educational resurgence as evidence that the key to transforming urban education is replacing traditional public schools with charters – publicly funded but largely independent schools with a level of autonomy over staffing, spending and teaching found in private schools. Unshackling schools from traditional bureaucracies and union rules in this way, and making them compete for students, proponents say, encourages innovation and improvement.

But that narrative reflects only half the charter school story in New Orleans. Louisiana’s school reformers themselves stress another key lesson from the post-Katrina experience in the city: When charters become a substantial presence in urban centers (as they increasingly are; some 6,400 charters now serve 2.5 million students in 42 states and the District of Columbia, including at least 20 percent of the public school populations in 43 cities), education authorities must demand that the new-style public schools not leave the neediest students behind.

Lots of New Orleans charters did just that in the years after Katrina, shunning challenging students to strengthen their academic profiles in a highly competitive environment. Louisiana’s educational leaders – many of them vocal charter school advocates – deserve credit for taking bold steps recently to counter what has become a troublingly commonplace practice among charter schools nationally.

Charter schools are tuition-free and are required, in most of the states that permit them, to admit any student that applies, using lotteries if they’re over-subscribed. In reality, many charter schools shape their student bodies through selective recruiting (in one often-cited instance, a Philadelphia charter makes applications available only to students who attend a one-day open house at a private golf club in the city’s suburbs) and by filtering out harder cases once they’ve enrolled.

That’s what happened in New Orleans, where charters in the first years after Katrina were known to hold invitation-only events to advertise their schools, interview parents and students and then selectively tell them they didn’t have seats, and find ways to push out and not replace lower-achieving, more-demanding students, many of them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the city’s endemic violence and the dislocations wrought by the storm. Special-education students were particularly hard hit, prompting legal action by the Southern Poverty Law Center and rulings by Louisiana district and appellate courts that the New Orleans schools were violating students’ civil rights.

“There were some pretty nefarious things done in pursuit of academic gains,” Andre Perry, the former chief executive of the four-school Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network, told a recent conference on the city’s school reforms, organized by Tulane University. “I can’t tell you how many kids came [to my schools] after the October student count date,” which determines schools’ funding levels. “Folks wanted to teach kids who were ready to learn … That’s part of our story.” As one former Recovery School District official says, “Expulsions [of students from charter schools] were out of control,” and that “The [remaining] traditional [public] schools were dumping grounds.”

Many charter school leaders in other parts of the country have deflected such charges or argued that charters shouldn’t be expected to serve all students. In New York City, where charter advocates point to large waiting lists in pressing for more charter schools, a recent study by Democracy Builders turned up 2,500 empty charter school seats, which the organization attributed to many schools’ refusal to replace departed students.

In New Orleans, school reform leaders have taken a different stance. In the past several years, under the leadership of Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White (who entered public education through Teach for America, led charter school expansion in New York City under Chancellor Joel Klein and ran the Louisiana Recovery School District for a year before being named state superintendent by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2012), they have rejected the argument that charters should be permitted to set their own, narrower standards of what it means to be public schools.

The year White became state superintendent, the Recovery School District introduced a centralized, computer-driven application system borrowed from New York City that takes student placements out of the hands of schools, making it harder for charters to manipulate their enrollments. Now, some 90 percent of New Orleans students entering kindergarten and high school get one of their top three choices, students receive admission letters without any contact from schools and there’s a central hotline for families with enrollment challenges.

A new citywide student code of conduct developed by the Recovery School District has banned expulsions for lesser infractions like not wearing school uniforms and every expulsion is now reviewed by central hearing examiners, who overturned 200 of 485 cases in 2013-14. In the wake of the special-education litigation, officials introduced a new funding system that targets special-needs students with up to three times the city’s average per-pupil spending, expanded services and increased training for special-education teachers. And officials have gone so far as to shutter the worst offenders. A few months ago, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education closed Lagniappe Academies for under-serving special-education students, including fraudulently claiming to have provided services it hadn’t.

White has been the most prominent spokesperson for New Orleans reformers’ commitment to protecting vulnerable students as charter schools spread in the city. “Government needs to exist in a publicly funded education system, not to manage schools, but to regulate equity – equity of resources, equity of access, and equity of outcomes,” he told the Tulane conference, a very different perspective from the don’t-tread-on-me, anti-government zealotry of many early charter advocates. “When we realized that charter schools would be serving essentially every child, it changed the paradigm.”

Other charter leaders have begun to share White’s perspective. “We assumed that a barely regulated marketplace would provide more quality control than it has,” longtime charter advocates and George H.W. Bush-era federal education officials Chester Finn and Bruno Manno wrote recently in an important analysis of the two-and-a-half-decade-old charter school movement.

The nation’s best charter schools have been a boon to public education, attracting some of the nation’s most talented people to a sector that has long lacked status in American life, demonstrating that public schools can systematically educate disadvantaged students to higher levels, and teaching valuable lessons about what’s needed to accomplish that critical task. They have raised the life trajectories of thousands of students.

But as the role of charter schools expands in increasingly decentralized urban public education systems, the New Orleans charter school experience suggests that accountability needs to be no less a priority than school autonomy, that attending to the students charter schools don’t serve is just as important as scrutinizing those they do.



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