NEW ORLEANS- AND CHARTER SCHOOLS
Schools revolution post Katrina, sees standards rise
When Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans it decimated one of the nation’s worst performing public school systems.
True, pre-Katrina, the school system had some structure and at least the appearance of central direction, but chronic academic failure and corruption dragged it down. School board members were often accused of over-involvement with the details of the school district administration and were frequently guilty of micromanaging superintendents. And there was a high turnover of senior staff, a sure sign of problems, and continuing difficulties in balancing the budget. Financial problems finally pushed the school system to the brink of bankruptcy in the school year before Hurricane Katrina hit. In March 2005, auditors reported that the school system was out of money, leading the state to push for an outside firm to take over the district’s finances. The hurricane effectively wiped the slate clean on what was one of the worst state school systems in the US. And many who fled the Hurricane were tempted back by promises of fundamental school reforms. Today, out of 88 public schools in New Orleans, 61 are charters run by a variety of state and local operators. That represents 70 percent of the city’s 40,000 students (there were 65,000 before Katrina). The percentage is much higher than in any other school system in the United States. Charter schools are public schools run by private, usually non-profit, organizations that receive a contract (or charter) to operate a school from a public entity, called an authorizer. In Louisiana, authorizers are either local school boards or the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). Non-profit organizations and local school boards are the only entities eligible to receive charters to operate charter schools in Louisiana. Authorizers hold charter schools to performance and accountability standards while giving them considerable autonomy in the areas of budgeting, staffing, and instruction. Most charter schools in New Orleans are governed by a board of directors and managed directly by a school leader, though some have elected to hire for-profit management companies. Three of the charter schools open during the 2009-2010 school year were managed by for-profit companies. In short New Orleans has become a laboratory for education reform, largely by necessity. With virtually all its students and teachers evacuated for the better part of the 2005-06 school year, it had to dramatically downsize and regroup. In the wake of the storm, the state became the overseer of most schools through its Recovery School District (RSD), originally set up to take over academically failing schools.
That paved the way for New Orleans to be named the most “reform friendly” for education out of 30 cities analyzed recently by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Demographically, the student population hasn’t changed much. Ninety percent of public-school students are African-American, and 82 percent are low-income. Both figures are within five percentage points of pre-storm figures. But it’s not clear how many are returnees versus new to the city. The number of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch in New Orleans was 82 percent in the 2009-2010 school year, well above the Louisiana average of 66 percent. Since 2007, the percentage of students with special education designations has steadily risen, from 6 percent in 2007 to 8 percent in 2009. This is probably due more to an increase in students being assessed and identified with disabilities than to a changing student population. A hybrid model where charter schools outnumber district-operated schools two to one has resulted in a newfound emphasis on innovation and school autonomy. While significant challenges remain, the new model of delivering education to the city’s youth has begun to yield results. The Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University released a briefing in July 2010, reviewed the new system. Although it still confronts many challenges the verdict is generally very good. Charters are making a positive difference. In the years since Hurricane Katrina, public school performance in New Orleans as measured by standardized test scores has clearly increased. Teachers salaries have also increased markedly. In the post-Katrina period, New Orleans test scores have come close to overtaking the state’s growth rate. Another way to look at school performance is to examine the performance levels of each public school in New Orleans. The state of Louisiana assigns nearly every public school a School Performance Score (SPS) from 0 to approximately 200 based on test scores and other metrics like attendance and graduation rates. Schools scoring below 60 are considered academically unacceptable by the state. Those schools scoring above 60 are categorized into five different performance levels, indicated by one through five stars. Since Katrina, the proportion of academically unacceptable schools in New Orleans has fallen. In addition, a higher proportion of schools are now scoring at the one, two, three, and four star levels than before Katrina, indicating that schools are moving up through the levels of performance outlined by the state. Before Katrina, 64 percent of New Orleans schools were deemed academically unacceptable by the state. By 2009, that was down to 42 percent.
Jay Altman the American educationalist who did much to get ARK Academies off the ground here ,uses New Orleans as an example of how widespread educational achievement can be brought to the toughest communities. Mr Altman says salaries have actually “skyrocketed” as ambitious charter schools compete for the best staff, and he points out that more than 90 per cent are operated on a non-profit basis. He believes greater autonomy combined with a strict accountability, which has already seen under-performing charter schools closed, could see New Orleans become the “first city in the country where every kid goes to a good school” within a decade. You would have thought by the way the Charter schools issue is covered by the media in the UK that it was a polarised left/right issue in the States. But it isn’t. Charters are certainly opposed by some Democrats (mainly trade unionists) but it is equally true that if you are from an ethnic minority and a disadvantaged community in an inner city and vote Democrat the chances are you support Charter schools.