Saturday, August 29, 2015, marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic Hurricane Katrina hitting the city of New Orleans that killed nearly 2,000 people, left thousands stranded and demanded reconstruction of this American city. Prior to the catastrophe, New Orleans’ education system was searching for ways to improve student achievement and the state had created a state school district to manage low-performing schools called the Recovery district. The majority of New Orleans’ schools were transitioned over to the state shortly after the storm. Louisiana’s Recovery School District took over 102 of the 126 schools from the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) in late-November 2005 with a mandate to recreate them as charter schools. Out of the 24 remaining schools, seven were uninhabitable, five still remained directly managed by OPSB, and the other 12 became charters, as well. Today over 90 percent of New Orleans’ students attend a public charter, which is far more than any other American city (Detroit City School District comes in second with 55 percent). This ten-year anniversary sparks a wide array of reflection in response to the education reform that took place in New Orleans post-Katrina.
There has been ongoing criticism against New Orleans’ charter schools despite the academic progress that has taken place. Baruch College’s Professor Andrea Gabor wrote a recent piece criticizing New Orleans’ schools that was published in The New York Times. “The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover,” is an opinion piece highlighting faults in the charter system with questionable data and condemning the statistics used to show the student’s improvement. Gabor addresses the school systems failure in handling disadvantaged students and “keeping track” of all the kids. Her conclusion dismisses the progress of the New Orleans’education reforms especially for disadvantaged students:
“For outsiders, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for some students, but it has hurt the most disadvantaged pupils.”
The Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White took the time to write a very balanced response to Gabor’s claims in an open letter to correct some of the misleading information. Superintendent White answers the following four questions in his piece:
1. Who is the New Orleans public school system of today?
2. How does a system of charter public schools protect the most vulnerable students?
3. Are students experiencing greater life opportunity in this system?
4. What other challenges persist in New Orleans schools?
The Superintendent’s answers give up-to-date demographics, school choice information, graduation rates, and the number of students continuing onto college. He concludes his piece recognizing needs for more improvement, but not ignoring current progress by stating, “In that spirit, we can tell a New Orleans story that is both rightly proud of who we are and deeply humble as to whom we have yet to become.”
Identifying New Orleans’ improvements is well-deserved. According to a report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, not only are charters in New Orleans serving a higher percentage of public school students than anywhere else in the nation, but they are also approaching the Louisiana state average in the percentage of students who are proficient in reading and math-a rare accomplishment for urban public schools. Following Hurricane Katrina and education reforms, the performance of students rose steadily compared to that of students in other Louisiana districts that were affected by the hurricane. Superintendent White also stated the city’s on-time high school graduation rate has increased from 54 percent in 2005 to 73 percent by last year. Furthermore, 76 percent graduate in five years, which exceeds Louisiana’s average, and the graduation rate for black students surpasses the national average.
As Tulane University economics professor Doug Harris found in his new study (Figure 1 Below) that was published in the Fall 2015 Education Next, “Between 2005 and 2012, the performance gap between New Orleans and the comparison group closed and eventually reversed, including a positive effect of the reforms of about 0.4 standard deviations, enough to improve a typical student’s performance by 15 percentile points.”
Education Post released an infographic that displays dramatic academic gains that New Orleans students have made, especially in the Recovery School District. RSD students test scores at basic or above climbed from 15 percent in 2005 to 57 percent by 2014 and all students throughout New Orleans climbed from 33 to 63 percent in the same time frame. Students with disabilities proficiency rates increased from 18 percent in 2008 to 44 percent by 2013. Additionally, more than half of New Orleans students are now enrolling in college.
Varying opinions are inevitable in any reform situation, but acknowledging achievements and failures accurately will help determine the best future actions for the schools. Conversations about New Orleans’ education will remain a forefront issue for the city and reevaluation is necessary to make adjustments to continue to improve student achievement. However, amidst this tragic anniversary it is necessary to acknowledge the success that has stemmed from the countless efforts to improve schools in New Orleans and acknowledge the important role school choice and school autonomy has played in these improvements. In New Orleans students have learned more and they are better-prepared for college and careers than they were before Hurricane Katrina.