Thirteen years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans public schools are once again under a single administrative body: the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). Katrina forced 65,000 students and their families to evacuate the city in 2005, and in the years following New Orleans outsourced most of its public education to charter schools. Today, 98 percent of the city’s students attend charters. After more than a decade of unprecedented autonomy, as of July 2018, the city’s schools are back under local control. If the new board can learn from past mistakes and respect school autonomy, it can ensure New Orleans schools continue making strides in academic performance and equity.
As disastrous as Hurricane Katrina was — and it was devastating with over 1,800 deaths, including 1,500 deaths in Louisiana, and more than $100 billion in damages from the storm — the tragedy eventually helped usher in changes to New Orleans public schools that were desperately needed.
In the years before the hurricane, the city had a highly-disproportionate share of Louisiana’s worst-performing schools. The Orleans Parish was saddled with corruption. The FBI handed down 24 indictments against district employees between 2002 and 2005. By summer 2006, there were 20 guilty pleas to charges of theft and fraud. When Katrina hit, the parish was also running an estimated budget deficit of $30 million. Despite numerous failures and poor school performance, the state never held the OPSB accountable.
When Katrina hit, the state turned nearly all New Orleans schools over to the state-run Recovery School District (RSD). While originally tasked with handling only a small number of the Louisiana’s lowest performing schools, the RSD began to contract with charter organizations to take over most New Orleans’ schools. They created, in the words of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, “the most intensive test-based and market-based school accountability system ever created in the United States.”
According to a new study from the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans, city schools have seen significant academic improvements under the RSD. Standardized test scores have risen by as much as sixteen percent, graduation rates by as high as 9 percent, college entry by up to fifteen percent, and college persistence by as high as 7 percent. All outcomes have improved for disadvantaged students, and educational inequities for high school and college students have shrunk.
Behind the success of the New Orleans charter model is increased accountability and autonomy. Principals enjoyed more discretion with hiring and budgeting, and teachers had more freedom to adjust their curricula to benefit their students. If school performance was below contractually-mandated standards, the RSD could act swiftly to close the school. The state also mandated that all RSD schools allow intra-district and inter-district open enrollment, allowing the city’s families to have greater school choice and incentivizing competitive innovation between charters.
Of course, reform has not been perfect. Inequities for the poorest students have shrunk but still persist, and the RSD was sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010 for inadequately accommodating students with disabilities. Intra-district portability has led to higher transportation costs, and the de-centralized system has created diseconomies of scale, driving up administrative costs. Moreover, student improvements have plateaued in the last few years.
These challenges highlight the difficulties associated with increasing school choice, but are not intrinsic to the model itself. Prior to OPSB reunification, New Orleans’ charters were already collaborating to cut costs and share resources.
Re-localizing control through OPSB reunification is a new chapter in the New Orleans’ charter school story that may possibly preserve school autonomy and school choice.
The Louisiana legislature passed SB 432 in 2016 and it was fully enacted in July 2018. The bill allows the locally-elected school board to manage enrollment, expulsion, and transportation. New Orleans communities, frustrated with their inability to hold their schools accountable, welcomed the change.
On the other hand, RSD supporters are worried that a local board may backslide into old bureaucratic habits. To this end, the legislation has provisions ensuring city charters retain their “operational autonomy.” It allows for charters to potentially act as their own local educational agency—a check against local board overreach that helps to ensure that charters retain broad control over funds.
Reunification is not without risk. As an elected body, the OPSB will be more susceptible to political pressure than the unelected, state-run RSD. It is not clear whether the board will be politically able to make unpopular decisions like cracking down on underperforming schools. Given that New Orleans still has a high number of “C” graded schools, the board will need to hold a hard line on quality.
Funding decisions could also become more politicized under reunification. Due to pressure from elections, board members in New Orleans may be vulnerable to wielding their budgets in favor of non-charter schools or expanding central-office expenditures. Because of Louisiana’s student-based budgeting practices, RSD-supervised charters were equitably funded. The OPSB should stay the course in their financing.
New Orleans and the state of Louisiana have spent thirteen years creating new ways of rebuilding society post-Katrina. It has been a laboratory for innovation in public schooling and school choice. If the OPSB is held in check, reunification under a single local board could signal progress toward greater accountability, equity, and school choice in New Orleans.