Since charter schools were invented in Minnesota two decades ago, they have grown into one of the more important public-policy innovations in many states. Last year, approximately 2 million children—roughly 4 percent of all public school students—attended 5,600 charter schools, in 40 states and the District of Columbia.
Yet in most places, charter schools remain a positive innovation around the edges of a struggling public school system. Some reformers have argued for years that charters should become the system, that we should treat every public school like a charter. With parental choice, freedom from most district rules and constraints, and accountability for performance, charters simply represent a better way to organize public education—or so the argument goes.
Over the past seven years, New Orleans has conducted the nation’s first serious test of this proposition, and the results could well shake the foundations of American education.
New Orleans, which just last month marked the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, has made major changes in the very DNA of public education. In a new report titled “Born on the Bayou: A New Model for American Education,” I describe a series of critical changes in the incentives and dynamics that govern schools in New Orleans—steps other districts should take if they hope to emulate the city’s success.
The story traces its origin to 2003, when Louisiana created the nation’s first Recovery School District to take over failing public schools. Two years later, frustrated by New Orleans’ long-standing poor educational performance and reputation for fiscal mismanagement and corruption, the state legislature used Hurricane Katrina’s devastation as an excuse to move every New Orleans school whose performance score was below the state average—more than 100—into the RSD. As the RSD reopened flood-disrupted schools, it turned as many as possible into charters. Since most of those charters outperformed the schools the RSD operated directly, leaders of the recovery district eventually decided to convert all their schools into charters. Meanwhile, 12 of the 17 schools that had stayed within the control of the Orleans Parish school board also converted.
All families in the city were given the right to choose their schools, and by last year, 78 percent had chosen charter schools—a number that should rise to 93 percent or beyond within a few years, given current plans. “In other cities, charter schools exist in spite of the system,” Louisiana Superintendent John White told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “Here charter schools are the system.”
Before Katrina, New Orleans was among the nation’s worst-performing districts. When Louisiana instituted standardized testing, in 2000, only 25 percent of public school students in the city scored “basic” (at grade level) or above. About half the students dropped out, less than one in five went to college, and fewer than 8 percent graduated from college. One result: Four of 10 adults in the city could not read beyond an elementary school level, according to a 2004 study.
Since Katrina, RSD schools in New Orleans have improved faster than any other district in the state—and most likely faster than any district in the nation. In the spring of 2007, the first full school year after Katrina, only 23 percent of students in RSD schools in the city tested at or above grade level. Five years later, 51 percent did.
This is 3½ times the average state increase. The 17 Orleans Parish schools, many of them selective magnet schools, were all performing above the state average in 2005. Still, the percentage of their students scoring basic or above has soared 16 points since 2007, to 82 percent, the state’s fourth-highest rate.
New Orleans’ progress is even more dramatic in the early grades, which suggests it will only grow as these better-educated students reach middle and high school. By the spring of 2012, 58 percent of 3rd through 8th grade students tested at grade level or above.
But progress is even visible in high schools: The annual dropout rate has fallen from 11.4 percent to 4.1 percent, matching the statewide average. At five of the recovery district’s eight charter high schools, every graduating senior was accepted to college this past spring. At the other three, the rates were 88 percent, 83 percent, and 42 percent.
All this improvement is not due to a big change in student population. In 2011, a higher percentage (83.5 percent) qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch than before Katrina (77 percent), and almost as many (86 percent vs. 93 percent) were African-American. Indeed, the gains made by black students are the most impressive. If one counts only African-Americans, New Orleans had the lowest test scores in the state before Katrina. By 2011, test scores for black students in the city were above the state average.
It took Hurricane Katrina to make such a profound change possible. But many other cities have education systems in crisis; and they are watching closely."
New Orleans is succeeding because it made big changes in the rules that govern public education.
• First, its new system separates steering from rowing, since districts no longer operate every school and employ every teacher. This gives the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish school board the political freedom to choose operators who can best help the city’s students, then sets each operator free to pursue its own mission.
• Second, charters face direct consequences for their performance: Success is rewarded with more students and more schools; failure means they will be replaced by charter operators with better track records.
• Third, schools are accountable to their customers: If parents are unhappy and remove their children, the school loses money, and vice versa.
• Fourth, operational control is decentralized: Schools manage their own budgets and hire, reward, and fire their own staffs, free from tenure, unions, or district interference.
• Fifth, charters build very different cultures from those of traditional schools, with high expectations, high motivation, and a relentless focus on data.
• And sixth, the New Orleans charters have made a concerted effort—with the help of organizations like Teach For America and New Schools for New Orleans—to recruit and develop excellent principals and teachers.
Test scores, school performance scores, graduation and dropout data, ACT scores, and independent studies all reveal the same pattern: New Orleans schools are improving three times as fast as the rest of the state, and within New Orleans, charter schools are improving the fastest.
Though there has been predictable resistance to the charter strategy, a solid majority of New Orleanians now support it, because it is working. In a 2009 survey by researchers at Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, only 31 percent of public school parents said the schools had improved since Katrina, though 81 percent agreed that it was important to be able to choose their children’s schools. Two years later, 66 percent believed the schools had improved, and 90 percent agreed choice was important.
The broader public is even more supportive. Last March, 78 percent of adults polled in the city strongly supported charter schools.
It took Hurricane Katrina to make such a profound change possible. But many other cities have education systems in crisis, and they are watching closely. If they want to emulate New Orleans’ success, the six steps outlined above offer a road map.
Some 26 other cities already participate in a network of “portfolio districts,” based on the notion that a district should manage a portfolio of diverse, independent schools. Because portfolio school boards no longer have armies of employees who can block their reforms at the ballot box, they are freer to manage their portfolios like smart investors—closing schools that don’t succeed, replicating schools that do, and opening new schools to test new models.
Will the New Orleans model spread? Only time will tell. But there is a ring of truth when Jay Altman, who co-founded the city’s first charter school, says: “Charter schools are simply the next generation of public schools in America.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as Is New Orleans a Model for America?