School Choice & Charters Opinion

Lessons From New Orleans: ‘Don’t Copy’

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 30, 2015 8 min read
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[Correction: The percentage drop in African-American teachers was incorrect in the original. The correct percentage is from approximately 73% before Hurricane Katrina to between 49 and 54% now.]

I went to New Orleans to see if its 10-year experience with charter schools and market-based school choice had application to Los Angeles. I came away with the admonition of my 4th Grade teacher ringing in my ears: Do your own work; don’t copy.

In other words, context matters. A lot. It’s not just that L.A. is 12 times larger than New Orleans, or that we haven’t yet had a natural disaster, or that we have five times as many charter schools with three times as many students. The two cities are profoundly different, and that difference shapes how to interpret the New Orleans results, which are being represented as the leading edge of school reform.

Unprecedented Changes

Without doubt New Orleans’ changes are historically unprecedented. The Recovery School District, which controls most schools, represents most radical school reform in a century, and the most complete example of a “portfolio” school district. Some 93% of the schools are charters, open enrollment exists throughout the city, and the data show that students and their parents are active choosers. About 86% percent of students attend a school other than the one closest to their home.

New Orleans schools educate about the same number of students as Oakland, Sacramento, or Garden Grove in California. A decade after Hurricane Katrina, enrollments have risen to 46,457, about 70% of their pre-storm level. About 84% of the students are African-American. Before the storm, enrollments stood at 66,372, 93% of whom were African-American. Still, fully 25% of students in New Orleans attend private school, the highest non-public school-going rate among large cities in the country. Private school enrollments are about 50% white.

Student achievement gains were trumpeted at a conference sponsored by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA). Graduation rates have gone up, the numbers of students going to schools labeled as “failing” has gone down, and performance on the state’s standardized tests has increased. While the significance of these changes is open to intense discussion and debate, including whether the new regime “juked” the stats (see this on failing and excelling schools), it’s clear that outcomes are moving in the right direction. There is intense excitement and pride among the civic elite.

But the theme of the conference was not whether the New Orleans transformation worked in its city of origin, but whether it represents “the urban education of the future.” Douglas Harris, Tulane University economist and president of the ERA (pictured above), argues that the effects of New Orleans’ reforms are relevant and significant to other cities, such as Detroit, and the rest of the country.

Harris makes the point that politicians from different ends of the spectrum—from Barack Obama to Bobby Jindal—have lauded the reforms based on technocratic management, weakened teacher unions, and the relentless focus on output data. The same big foundations that put money into New Orleans are transporting its “proof of concept” throughout the country. Indeed, several states are considering creating charter districts.

I was interested in New Orleans in part because it has decentralized and that it has tried to find a path using autonomous operating groups of schools. LAUSD, which has struggled with decentralization for decades, has five times as many autonomous schools as New Orleans if one counts both charters and Pilot schools, but autonomous operation hasn’t become “the system.”

In Learning from L.A., I wrote about creating autonomous networks of schools as a way of accomplishing decentralization, and, certainly, the civic elite in Los Angeles embraced charters in the wake of its frustration with the last decentralization effort in the 1990s. In recent posts, I recalled my advocacy of network organization as a way to transform LAUSD.

Political Trash Talk

But my takeaway lessons were not to embrace the package of reforms that New Orleans represents, but instead to transform LAUSD based on what it is and what it has already accomplished. Here’s why.

The New Orleans reforms require politically trashing the existing school district and its teachers. The old institution has to be declared unworkable, illegitimate, and a barrier to the educational civil rights of children. This political strategy has been used throughout the country: New York, Newark, Washington, DC.

It wasn’t Hurricane Katrina that did in the old New Orleans school system; it was the assertion that the district was incapable of fixing itself or being fixed with lesser measures. This was not a particularly hard sell. The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) district was almost universally considered dysfunctional and corrupt, and political efforts to take it over had begun. In the words of a recent Cowen Institute report, “The OPSB was also wracked by ineffective administration, budget deficits, scandal, and corruption, culminating in investigations by the FBI, state auditors, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Many former employees were ultimately indicted for a range of charges, including soliciting bribes. The system was, for all purposes, bankrupt in the months before Hurricane Katrina.” The Recovery School District had been formed by the state before the storm.

It’s also easy to criticize LAUSD, and I have done so, but two big factors distinguish it from New Orleans. First, it’s a much higher performing school district. Students in Los Angeles take much harder standardized tests than those in Louisiana, and they have made substantial gains over the last 15 years. The LAUSD graduation rate is higher than New Orleans’ is after a decade of reform efforts.

Second and most important, there is no ready substitute for a viable, well operating public school system in Los Angeles. It is, in fact, too big to fail. It could be carved into smaller districts, but even then the resulting five or six districts would each be twice the size of the old New Orleans district.

Thus, the strategy of delegitimation poisons a needed institution. It drives away talent and continues to breed mistrust. I prefer the “slow food” gradual reformation and transformation I proposed recently.

Fire the Teachers?

Firing all the teachers is also not a viable option. In New Orleans, hurricane Katrina and the deligitimation of the old district allowed a radical reform in which all the existing teachers and administrators were fired, and where the local government system of boards and grass roots participation was swept aside.

As Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, noted at the conference, the dismissed teachers represented fully 5% of the city’s middle class. They were, for the most part, African-Americans, who were the upwardly mobile role models for students in the district. While the new charter schools rehired many, the overall percentage of African-American teachers dropped from over 70% before Katrina to between 49% and 54% today. (In Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr places the pre-Katrina percentage of African-American teachers at 73%; others suggest it was somewhat lower. The 2015 Cowen Institute report places the 2014 percentage at 54. A brief from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans puts the percentage at 49. Regardless of the exact numbers, the decline in African-American teachers remains a significant issue, as this article by Carr illustrates.)

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court refused without comment to hear the dismissed teachers appeal that claimed the firing violated their due process rights.

The politics of Teach for America is playing out differently in Los Angeles than it did in New Orleans where Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas recruited thousands of urban missionaries from elite colleges. L.A. has its share of TFA teachers and alums, too, and two of the most prominent ones are Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, and school board member Steve Zimmer. Neither has much interest in delegitimating the district.

There is good stuff going on in New Orleans; I don’t want to slight that. I think that Los Angeles can learn more about autonomous networks of schools and about how to make school choice work better. I think that L.A. can learn how better to return operating responsibility to teachers and principals.

But none of this means that the first item on the political agenda should be trashing the existing public schools.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Going Deeper

The Cowen Institute at Tulane produces, among other reports, an annual state-of-the-schools report that is must reading.

Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope, provides both a social context and human stories. It’s a very good read, too.

In Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance, Kristen Buras writes a highly critical account of the reforms and a chronicle of efforts to resist them.

The Education Research Alliance, posts research papers. Eventually, it will publish the papers presented at the conference earlier this month. Douglas Harris, it’s director, also conducts an EdWeek Blog.

This ERA paper by Huriya Jabbar examines the ways in which school leaders respond to competition. (EdWeek summary) It’s mostly about marketing.

The father of the portfolio schools idea, Paul Hill, has written, The Democratic Constitution for Public Education, that details his evolving thinking about how to devolve authority and operating capacity to schools.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.