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School & District Management Opinion

New Orleans’ Path to Education Equity

By Mary Landrieu — August 25, 2015 4 min read
Then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., surveys a post-Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans during a helicopter tour on Aug. 30, 2005.
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On Aug. 29, New Orleans and our nation will mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the largest natural and man-made disaster in the history of our country. A million people were displaced, thousands of families were uprooted, and an entire region was driven to rebuild.

One critical aspect of rebuilding New Orleans was the chance to design a new public school system that would deliver the promise of real opportunity for every child. This change was desperately needed because of the city’s dream-crushing dropout rates, low graduation rates, crumbling school facilities, and school board known for its corrupt practices. This reality was hurting our students and weakening the city’s economic prospects.

The reforms that have taken place in the last 10 years are truly amazing, but it is important to note that the seeds of this reform were sown years before Katrina by former governors and other state and local leaders who had the foresight to pass new laws requiring accountability, transparency, and clear academic achievement for all Louisiana students.

While the academic renaissance of New Orleans schools has garnered wide attention for citywide choice and the significant improvement in test scores, a report by Neerav Kingsland, the former CEO at New Schools for New Orleans, sheds light on a less noticed, but hugely important trend: improved equity in the city’s education system. Equity in the educational context refers to giving all students access to high-quality schools, regardless of family income, racial or ethnic background, or special education and disability status.

Equity challenges in America’s K-12 education system are real and must be addressed. A significant portion of education revenues are based on local property taxes, so that schools in neighborhoods with higher home values and more affluent families tend to receive a greater investment than schools in poorer areas.

This reality perpetuates and deepens racial inequity as African-American and Hispanic students tend to be clustered in low-income areas and attend poorly funded schools. In addition, studies show that black students are disproportionately likely to be suspended and expelled. And students with disabilities and special education needs typically face an uphill battle in gaining access to adequate resources, especially in poorer districts.

The New Orleans public charter school experience is turning this reality upside down. Our charter school leaders—school administrators, Recovery School District staff, New Schools for New Orleans team members, and even the city’s current mayor (who is also my brother)—have focused on guaranteeing equity for all students and families across four areas: enrollment, discipline, special-needs funding, and quality.

One critical aspect of rebuilding New Orleans was the chance to design a new public school system that would deliver the promise of real opportunity for every child.”

This is how:

First, New Orleans school and community leaders adopted citywide school choice and a unified enrollment system that provides equal access to schools across the city. Each school may set aside a portion of seats for neighborhood students. But all schools must be open to students from anywhere in the city, so that students from every neighborhood have access to a quality school of their choice. Moreover, the students whose families don’t end up selecting a school through this process are automatically assigned to the highest-performing public charter school with available space in the city.

Second, to ensure that discipline is handed out fairly, New Orleans created a centralized expulsion-hearing office, as well as a unified code for expulsions. Students are removed from school only for extremely serious behavior infractions. New Orleans now has a lower expulsion rate than the state average, despite serving a much more at-risk student body.

Third, local and state education authorities overhauled the school funding formula to give schools significantly more money for serving students with special needs. Because this funding follows a student to the school he or she chooses, schools are not penalized for serving special-needs students.

Finally, local policymakers set high standards across the board and ensure that schools are closed when they consistently fail to meet these standards. Students no longer remain trapped in failing schools because of bureaucratic inertia.

Importantly, charter school leaders recognized that because public charter schools serve nearly all students in the city, they have to operate somewhat differently from how they would in a place where charters serve a smaller share of students.

So, for instance, the city’s unified enrollment and discipline policies require individual charters to give up some of the autonomy they enjoy elsewhere. At the same time, proponents of school district centralization have had to accept that every school will be free to implement and manage its own academic program, and that no school will be allowed to underperform. In each case, ideological rigidity took a back seat to student needs.

New Orleans’ ongoing education reform shows that a combination of putting students first, emphasizing school-level flexibility and accountability, and encouraging community-driven input can dramatically improve schools, eliminate inequities, and give all students equitable access to a high-quality education.

Ten years after the nation offered its help to ensure a better future for New Orleans, it is indeed ironic that New Orleans is now offering a proven model for communities around the nation to provide hope and opportunity for their own.

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2015 edition of Education Week as New Orleans’ Path to Equity

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