Charter opponents don’t have New Orleans to kick around anymore
By Jim Waters
Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, state education leaders in Louisiana decided to take over and rebuild the shattered New Orleans public school infrastructure using charter schools, which by their very nature are more innovative and rapidly responsive than their traditional counterparts.
Such speed and innovation were sorely needed in the Big Easy after Katrina’s waters receded, leaving much in ruin, including schools.
While some cling to the belief that the reported success of New Orleans’ charter program is a mirage, the evidence of significant academic improvement in the district continues to mount.
The Times-Picayune newspaper reported on July 11 that 98 percent of public school students in the city attend charters — making it the most extensive charter school program in our nation’s history — and that half of New Orleans’ schools involved “saw growth in the performance of their students” on Louisiana’s state assessment.
New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, who visited New Orleans recently to witness the performance of charter schools firsthand, addresses in an article entitled “How New Orleans Is Helping Its Students Succeed” a consistent charge made by critics that enrollment in charter schools is somehow skewed toward higher-performing students.
“The charters here educate almost all public-school students, so they can’t cherry pick,” he writes. “And the students are overwhelmingly black and low-income — even lower-income than before Katrina — so gentrification isn’t a factor.”
Leonhard also notes that performance has surged both on state and national standardized tests.
“Before the storm, New Orleans students scored far below the Louisiana average on reading, math, science and social studies,” he states. “Today, they hover near the state average, despite living amid much more poverty. Nationally, the average New Orleans student has moved to the 37th percentile of math and reading scores, from the 22nd percentile pre-Katrina.”
Leonhardt adds an inspiring twist to his account, noting that one black student he interviewed who attended post-Katrina schools in New Orleans went on to graduate from college and now is headed back to New Orleans – as a teacher.
If that trend continues, another favorite complaint of charter-school critics that a lot of minority teachers in the district lost their jobs following Katrina might in the end prove only a transitory issue.
Finally, he points to an even more detailed analysis of New Orleans’ situation just released by Douglas Harris, a Tulane economist leading a rigorous research project on the schools, and Lafayette College economist Matthew Larsen.
The study shows “the test-score gains are translating into real changes in students’ lives,” Leonhardt writes. “High-school graduation, college attendance and college graduation have all risen.”
Harris and Larsen report the New Orleans’ charter school-based reforms improved:
• student achievement by 11 to 16 percentiles, depending on the subject and analysis method;
• the high school graduation rate by 3 to 9 percentage points;
• the college-entry rate by 8 to 15 percentage points;
• the college persistence rate by 4 to 7 percentage points;
• increased the college graduation rate by 3 to 5 percentage points;
• graduation and college outcomes by 10 percent to 67 percent compared to where New Orleans stood prior to Katrina; and
• improved all outcomes for disadvantaged students.
“It is very unusual to see programs and policies improve all of these outcomes,” they observe in summarizing their study.
Increased student achievement, graduation rates and college success, especially for disadvantaged students, are outcomes badly needed in Kentucky — especially in Louisville, where the schools have so many issues that the commonwealth is seriously considering taking the system over from the locals.
New Orleans’ success provides persuasive evidence that a state takeover of a failing district can indeed produce change and improve education for poor students most at risk of failing.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bipps on Twitter.