Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Re-Creating Public Education in New Orleans

By Paul T. Hill — September 20, 2005 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
Circumstances after Hurricane Katrina call for a coherent strategy, not just a round of do-gooding.

In the case of posthurricane New Orleans, American school planners will be as close as they have ever come to a “green field” opportunity: A large public education system will need to be built from scratch. It seems impossible to put the pre-existing New Orleans public school system together again. Even if that were possible, doing so would be misguided. The system in place before Hurricane Katrina was not built to cope with the problems facing New Orleans now.

No doubt, the U.S. Department of Education and national philanthropic foundations will want to do all they can to help. And almost any well-intentioned act will be welcome. But the circumstances call for a coherent strategy, not just a round of do-gooding.

Although last year in New Orleans there were 60,000 children in district-run schools and 50,000 in parochial schools, no one knows how many of those students will return, or where they will settle, or when. Nobody knows whether the parochial schools will re-emerge, able to serve a high proportion of the city’s children. Today, most school buildings are uninhabitable, many damaged beyond repair. Moreover, the neighborhoods that once had the largest numbers of students have lost much of their housing. Teachers and administrators have moved away, too.

There is reason to think that many of the city’s displaced citizenry—both middle-class families that find jobs elsewhere and poor families that settle into new schools and neighborhoods—might stay away. But some portion of the population will come back, and new families could be attracted to the city by a boom in infrastructure construction, new housing, and revived public institutions.

For the foreseeable future, though, New Orleans will need to cope with uncertainty. The size and even the location of the student population may shift from year to year, as neighborhoods are rebuilt and different parts of the local economy come back on line.

Finally, no one can determine with any certainty how much state and local tax money will be available. Katrina will knock a big hole in state tax receipts, and local governments have almost no revenue base left.

How can public education be restarted under these circumstances? Here are six keys to a solution:

• Acknowledge that a lot of the money will have to come from outside, from the federal government and philanthropic giving.

• Put virtually all the money available into the schools themselves. Offer former central-office staff members who are qualified to teach the opportunity to do so, but don’t spend money rebuilding the old district structure.

• Avoid premature investment in school facilities, waiting at least until neighborhoods are well established and student population needs are known.

• Create schools one by one, by assigning their operation, under charters or contracts, to such diverse groups as teacher co-operatives, nonprofits, higher education institutions, national school providers, and others.

• Welcome back teachers who worked in the city’s public and parochial schools, but offer them a new employment deal: They will work for individual schools, and their work assignments will shift from time to time, depending on trends in the school population and the needs of school providers.

• Don’t assign students to schools. Let the location of families and their needs determine where their children enroll.

To act on these kinds of recommendations, federal and state governments and major philanthropies will have to agree on a common strategy. Such a strategy should begin with a state-federal partnership to fund the education of New Orleans children.

The state should continue to provide its per-capita share of costs (about two-thirds of the total per-pupil expenditure), as well as the amount it appropriates for capital expenditures. The federal government should combine all its categorical-aid programs into one lump sum. The feds also could replace lost local taxes, which paid about $1,200 per pupil, with what might be called special “Spellings Plan” aid of about $75 million a year. To cover the students previously in parochial schools, the federal government would have to come up with another $60 million a year. This federal support would continue until local sales- and property-tax revenues grew to some share, above 50 percent, of prehurricane levels.

A strategy should begin with a state-federal partnership to fund the education of New Orleans children.

Money from all sources should be pooled to provide scholarships for all New Orleans students, no matter where they previously went to school. Consistent with the aim of putting all money directly into the schools, any licensed school should get the full scholarship amount for every student it enrolls, so long as it agrees not to charge families extra.

The governor of Louisiana should appoint a special master to oversee the New Orleans schools. The master would have the sole authority to permit a group to run a school with public funds. The master’s office would be able to accept applications for any type of school, but its first priority would be to establish “triage schools” emphasizing reading and math. Schools would not be required to cover all other aspects of the state curriculum for a period of two years. They would be required to admit students by lottery, but could set standards for attendance and deportment. The master would encourage the development of special schools for students in need of psychological intervention.

The master appointed by the governor also would have the capacity to audit schools’ books, and would be given authority to withdraw school licenses for fiscal and academic nonperformance. He or she would serve a five-year term and could be removed only by unanimous agreement among officials including the governor, the mayor of New Orleans, the chair of the state school board, and the president of a local university.

National foundations should create a school start-up fund of about $50 million to help schools assemble teaching staffs and locate space. Those with track records in running New Orleans’ parochial schools should be welcomed as possible resources to run new public schools, as should local colleges and universities.

To create school facilities without making premature investments in bricks and mortar, the federal government should capitalize a facilities authority that would be responsible for leasing space in commercial buildings and entering future contracts with developers who are constructing or rehabilitating mixed-use buildings. This authority would sublease to schools, and schools would pay rent from their scholarship incomes. The initial capital required would be about $150 million.

Regional and national corporations also could encourage qualified teachers to move to New Orleans by sponsoring a human-resources fund. Schools could apply to the fund for grants covering moving costs and short-term rent subsidies for teachers. To encourage a strong response to hiring efforts, the state would also waive indefinitely teacher- and principal-certification requirements, other than the requirement that candidates have a college degree.

To help parents find and choose schools, foundations should set up a nonprofit parent-information agency at a local university. Its estimated cost would be about $2 million.

There’s a lot more to think about, such as transportation. And it’s probably too soon for governments to make big financial commitments. But the time will come soon, probably before January. For now, it is important to get some education-specific ideas out, to avoid letting instruction become tangled up with health care and social services. To be effective, foundations and the federal government need to unite behind a common strategy, rather than acting randomly and alone.

Related Tags:
Partnerships Education Reform

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as Re-Creating Public Education In New Orleans

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Q&A School Libraries and Controversial Books: Tips From the Front Lines
A top school librarian explains how districts can prepare for possible challenges to student reading materials and build trust with parents.
6 min read
Image of library shelves of books.
mikdam/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion ‘This Is Not What We Signed Up For’: A Principal’s Plea for More Support
School leaders are playing the role of health-care experts, social workers, mask enforcers, and more. It’s taking a serious toll.
Kristen St. Germain
3 min read
Illustration of a professional woman walking a tightrope.
Laura Baker/Education Week and uzenzen/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Educators Must Look to History When They Advocate for Changes
Educators and policymakers must be aware of the history of ideas when making changes in education, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Reconsidering Causes of Principal Burnout
The state and federal governments are asking us to implement policies that often go against our beliefs, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty