School Choice & Charters

La. Officials Selective in Granting 9 More Charters for New Orleans

By Erik W. Robelen — February 27, 2007 3 min read
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Louisiana officials were pretty picky this month in approving new charter schools to help accommodate the fast-growing student population in New Orleans, analysts say. They gave a conditional OK to just nine charters to open for the coming academic year, out of 17 formal applications for 28 schools.

All of the students returning to the hurricane-ravaged city have to find classrooms somewhere, of course. Without enough new charters to keep pace, therefore, the state is expected to directly operate still more schools in 2007-08, educating the lion’s share of additional students.

The state-operated Recovery School District already runs 20 schools, far more than state officials envisioned when Louisiana took over most of New Orleans’ public schools shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. The RSD also oversees 17 charter schools.

Louisiana has been widely praised for setting a high bar for new charters, but the approach entails trade-offs.

“It was clear even last year that they had this rigorous process and were only opening the charters that had pretty strong applications,” said Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, based at the University of Washington, in Seattle. “Failing to get enough of those, then they open those [state-run schools] where there’s no application at all.”

“[It’s] kind of an inevitable glitch” in the state’s approach, Mr. Hill said.

Slow Approach

Officials with the Recovery School District say the city’s public school enrollment could reach roughly 40,000 by the start of the next academic year, up from about 26,500 now.

More Charter Schools Planned

Louisiana education officials have given preliminary approval to nine applicants to open charter schools next year. Final decisions will be made by June.

Advocates for Science and Math Education: Operates New Orleans Charter Science & Mathematics High School. To open a second high school.
Algiers Charter Schools Association: Operates eight charters on the West Bank in New Orleans. To open a high school.
Broadmoor Charter School Board: Plans to bring in Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit school operator based in New York City, to run an elementary school.
Esperanza Charter School Association: Would have the Chicagobased UNO Charter School Network operate a school to eventually serve grades K-8. The network runs five charters in Chicago primarily serving Hispanic students.
KIPP New Orleans: Oversees two Knowledge Is Power Program charters in the city. To open a middle school starting with grade 5 next fall.
New Orleans College Preparatory Academies: To open a school that eventually would serve grades 6-12.
Nola 180: Headed by a former KIPP official. To open a middle school, starting with grade 5 next fall.
Pelican Educational Foundation: Plans to work with the Cosmos Foundation Inc., which operates charter schools in Oklahoma and Texas.
Treme Charter School Association: State revoked its charter last year to open three schools shortly before the school year began. To open an elementary school.

SOURCE: Louisiana Recovery School District

New Orleans’ charter sector, just a sliver before the storm, is now a major presence, with 31 charters serving more than half the city’s public school students.

About 3,000 new charter seats likely will be available, according to Leslie R. Jacobs, a member of the state board of elementary and secondary education. That figure, which includes both the schools granted conditional approval and existing schools adding grade levels, could leave as many as 10,000 new students to be served by state-run schools.

“Personally, I would rather go slower with charters and go with high quality … than go with bad operators who get a black eye,” Ms. Jacobs said. “For the long-term viability of what we’re doing, it’s critically important that we have high-quality charter operators.”

But after the initial batches of charters opened post-Katrina, the growth of the sector has been fairly modest. This past fall, just six new charters opened, out of 44 proposed to the state last year.

On Feb. 13, the state school board gave conditional approval to nine new RSD charters. Final decisions will be made by June. A 10th that earlier won approval is also expected to open for the 2007-08 year. (“Desperately Seeking Educators,” Feb. 21, 2007.)

‘Serious Drawbacks’

Some state officials and charter advocates have hoped to see a larger number of prominent charter operators from outside Louisiana take on schools.

“For somebody trying to think about that from California or Texas, you’re talking about some very serious drawbacks,” said Nelson Smith, the executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. Those downsides include a shortage of good teachers and affordable housing, a worrisome crime rate, and slow economic development in the city, whose population is roughly half of its prehurricane level.

But at least a few organizations have recently stepped forward, Mr. Smith noted, such as the New York City-based Edison Schools Inc. and the Chicago-based UNO Charter Network, which aims to serve New Orleans’ growing Hispanic population.

Matthew W. Candler, the chief executive officer of New Schools for New Orleans, a new nonprofit group helping charters and the Recovery School District, said he’s trying to help recruit more high-quality charter operators from outside Louisiana.

“We can provide a lot of the groundwork and local intelligence that usually takes years to create,” he said.

At the same time, he plans to target some local charter applicants that didn’t make the cut, helping them build the expertise and capacity to become stronger contenders.

The state again this year asked the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers to manage the application process for new charters and make recommendations. Greg Richmond, the group’s executive director, applauds the state board for following that advice.

“This board has been very good about not playing politics with this process,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as La. Officials Selective in Granting 9 More Charters for New Orleans


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