New Orleans’ Experiment with Charter Schools

It has been 13 years since Hurricane Katrina. On July 1st, the city achieved another historic milestone: all of the city’s public schools are finally back under the local school board. Now the great experiment in reunification begins.

A Unique Proposition

New Orleans’ unified school district is the only of its kind in the United States. Most of the 86 schools are charter schools, each answering to their own board. The individual charter boards have authority when it comes to curriculum, educational methods, and hiring. The locally elected school board will then oversee the charter boards on matters like student enrollment, transportation, and disciplinary actions.

This distribution of power could serve as a model for struggling school systems across the nation. The two-tiered system allows individual schools the necessary autonomy to set educational curriculum isolated from political infighting, while providing the local democratic input most parents need to feel comfortable. The question now is, will it work?

The Push for Charter Schools

Over the last several years, there has been a growing push for charter schools across the country. Fueled mainly by conservatives and funded by billionaires like Bill Gates, the movement is obviously controversial (as captured in an op-ed piece Big Easy Magazine published last month). Many conservatives are huge fans of school choice, while many progressives feel that anything taking money and enrollment away from traditional public schools can only do harm.

Charter schools are run by their own boards and aren’t usually subjected to the same rules or standards that public schools are. They have more freedom when it comes to choosing their curriculum. Often, they are more cutting-edge, using newer instruction methods to teach students traditional concepts in varying ways. While many parents are excited by instruction methods that cater to each child’s individual learning styles, others worry that varying curriculum and instruction methods could result in lower performance on a national scale.

Tulane University Study

From 2012 to 2014, Tulane University conducted a study examining the results of the New Orleans educational experiment with Charter schools. Many of the results were quite encouraging. Student achievement, graduation rates, college admissions, college persistence, and college graduation rates all showed improvement. Many are heralding the results as proof of the success charter schools are capable of. But such proof is not the whole story.

The study shows that when it comes to the achievement gap that often occurs between privileged and disadvantaged students, charter schools may not be the answer. While disadvantaged students did show improvements, they simply didn’t improve as quickly as their privileged counterparts. By the end of the study, the achievement gap had returned to where it was at the beginning of the study.

Academic achievement also tapered off. In the early years of the new charter system, academic performance rose across the city at a steady climb. From 2012 to 2014 however, scores seemed to have hit a plateau. In the final year, academic achievement had even begun to drop a little, suggesting that the charter model may not be the magic pill many were hoping for.

Looking to the Future

There is a great deal to consider as New Orleans enters the next phase of its great educational experiment. One of the main things to watch for is how the locally elected school board will hold charter schools accountable for poor performance. Under state control, schools that failed to meet required academic improvement milestones or standards were closed or given over to other charter organizations. The local school board will need to be just as judicious with their oversight.

There is also the matter of whether the two-tiered system will have unnecessary friction. For charter schools used to a higher level of autonomy, the closer local oversight may put a strain on the administration. Avoiding getting bogged-down in unnecessary bureaucracy will also be a concern.

One thing is for sure: whatever the results of New Orleans’ experiment with the charter system, the whole nation will be watching.

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