Hard Lessons from the Big Easy’s Public Schools

New Orleans private schools fight for survival

If nature could assign grades, it would give the New Orleans public school system an F after Hurricane Katrina and private Catholic schools an A.

Two and a half months after Katrina unleashed its fury on Orleans parish, 14 of the 34 schools operated by the Archdiocese of New Orleans are already up and running with many more slated to open by Christmas.

Public schools, on the other hand, initially bid their students luck and pulled their shutters for the 2005-06 academic year. (The two exceptions were Milestone SABIS Academy and James Singleton Charter School — both charters.)

But after a sustained browbeating from parents and unemployed teachers, the first public school reopened Monday with another 10 or so slated to reopen over the next few weeks.

Apologists for public schools often claim that private schools deliver better results because they serve a less diverse student body with fewer problems.

Not so in the case of New Orleans’ Catholic schools.

Their students don’t come from rich, suburban families. To the contrary, according to Father William Maestri, the Superintendent of Catholic schools, their 60,000 strong student population comes mostly from low-income, inner-city families. About 20 percent of their students are African Americans – none Catholic.

This meant that after Katrina struck, families didn’t come to these schools’ rescue with large checks. If anything, they had to refund advance fees to families fleeing the parish for other cities.

Despite the financial strain, the schools found creative ways to collaborate with each other and cope with the lack of safe drinking water, power and other basic city services.

For instance, notes Father Maestri, some of his schools ran a double shift, beginning the school day at 7 am and ending it after 6 pm. One school accommodated 3,000 students from 14 area schools in this way.

Similarly, notes Woody Price, the principal of Isidore Newman School, his school collaborated with St. Paul and Trinity Schools to take back 300 children whose parents had to return to work. Newman, which escaped with relatively little physical damage, provided the building. And all three consolidated teaching and administrative staff to offer a fairly complete complement of courses to their returning kids.

To a large extent, the hurricane simply threw into relief the long-standing dysfunction in the New Orleans public school system. Still, its original decision to simply close down for the year was shocking, points out Father Maestri. It meant high-risk students who most needed these schools would have nowhere to go.

“The public schools response was entirely unacceptable,” fumes Father Maestri. “The children of public school officials are all back in school because they send their kids to private schools.” Yet they had no qualms about slamming the doors on poor parents with no other options.

What is even more shameful is that teachers’ unions fought a proposal by Father Maestri to help these kids. He said he gets 15 to 20 applications every day, many from stranded public school children. He suggested to the city authorities if they would give these kids a $2,500 voucher — a third of what they themselves would spend on a child — and just enough cover tuition costs, his schools would take them in. Paranoid unions, however, saw this as a back-door attempt to implement a voucher program and blocked it. “But this is not the beginning of a voucher system,” pleads Father Maestri. “It is simply a response to a crisis.”

But why did one school system respond so cynically and the other so benevolently?

The altruistic mission of Catholic schools might be part of it.

But the real reason, says Woody Price, is that private, independent schools – Catholic or others – don’t take their existence for granted. “They exist only to extent that they serve,” he says. “They don’t think they have a right to exist.”

If that’s the case, the best way to coax nonperforming public schools out of their complacency might be to make them fight for their survival. The Louisiana governor recently announced plans to take over the city’s schools and reopen them as charters. This is a step in the right direction. Better yet would be a full-scale voucher program that allows parents to take their education dollars anywhere they please.

If public schools can’t count on a captive market for their survival, they might yet start making the grade.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation.