Did the Charter Takeover Improve New Orleans’ Schools?

By Corey Mitchell — July 17, 2018 4 min read
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As most of New Orleans’ public schools were turned into charters after Hurricane Katrina, the schools saw improvements in standardized test scores, high school graduation rates, and students’ college performance, according to a new study from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

Among the most important findings from the Tulane University-based research group is that the education overhaul following Hurricane Katrina boosted graduation rates and college attendance rates for all, including black students and those from low-income families.

The new research, from Douglas Harris of Tulane University and Matthew Larsen of Lafayette College, built on 2015 work from the Education Research Alliance that found the post-Katrina education overhaul in the city helped boost student performance on tests by eight to 15 percentage points.

The performance of schools in post-Katrina New Orleans has been a well-scrutinized experiment, with champions and critics of charter schools and school choice closely monitoring the results—and Harris has emerged as perhaps the most high-profile researcher documenting the change.

As my colleague Sarah Sparks reported on the Inside School Research blog, the federal Institute of Education Sciences has just awarded Harris a $10 million, five-year grant to create the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice, or REACH, at Tulane University.

While Harris promotes his latest findings, the economist and director of the Education Research Alliance does not conclude that what has worked in New Orleans will necessarily work in other parts of the country, largely because the cities’ schools had “nowhere to go but up.”

New Orleans was a school system “that, by just about any measure, was failing badly,” the authors wrote. “Corruption, mismanagement, and rapid turnover of superintendents resulted in extremely poor student outcomes. Even some of the strongest critics of the reforms agree that major changes were in order.”

New Orleans Schools Are ‘Still at the Bottom’

Before the 2005 flood, that district was the second-worst performing district in one of the worst-performing states: Louisiana’s NAEP scores are among the worst in the nation, with the state coming in last place in 4th and 8th grade math, and ranking near the bottom in reading at both grade levels.

Harris’ critics argue that his findings paint “too rosy” a picture of school and student performance. Among them is Barbara Ferguson, a former interim superintendent in New Orleans who co-founded Research on Reforms, a group that has publicly cast doubts on his work and the value of the state-run Recovery School District.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the RSD took over most of New Orleans’ schools and either closed them or turned them over to charter school groups.

More than a decade later, more than 90 percent of students in the city attend independently run charter schools, by far the highest percentage of any city in the nation. In a system that once prided itself on the importance of neighborhood schools, competition now reigns supreme: a child’s parent, not their ZIP code, determine where they go to school.

“Some good has come of it, but New Orleans is still at the bottom,” Ferguson said. “The recovery has not been as glowing as some people have been led to believe.”

Chief among Ferguson’s complaints is that the highest-performing charter schools screen and exclude students, a concern that other research from the Education Research Alliance has confirmed. In an effort to boost and maintain academic performance, at least a third of schools in the study did not report open seats, actively recruited high-achieving students, or encouraged poor-performing students to transfer, the alliance’s research has found.

Davida Finger, a law professor at the Loyola University College of Law in New Orleans, said she has seen first-hand evidence that segregation and inequity—white children filling seats in top-rated schools and the failing schools being filled with predominately black children—continue to plague schools in the city.

Finger, who oversees the community justice section of Loyola’s law clinic, will launch a educational equity project to help families grappling with special education and school discipline disputes.

“It’s important to keep sight of the broader equity issues,” Finger said. “Our system is only as strong as it is for our most vulnerable students.”

Despite those challenges, the Education Research Alliance’s work, past and present, makes the case that school quality and academic progress have improved in the new system.

“The successes documented here force educators and policymakers to question assumptions about how an education system can and should be designed and operated,” the authors wrote. “It shows that, at least under certain circumstances, intensive system-wide school reform, based on principles of accountability and school autonomy, have the potential to produce large effects on student learning.”

You can read the Education Research Alliance’s full study, “The Effects of the New Orleans Post-Katrina Market-Based School Reforms on Student Achievement, High School Graduation, and College Outcomes?

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What Kinds of Charter Schools Are Linked to Student Gains in New Orleans?

The Re-Education of New Orleans: 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina

Photo Credit: Members of the 2015 graduating class of New Orleans’ Cohen College Prep celebrate their college acceptances. -- Swikar Patel/Education Week file

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.