THE NEW ORLEANS EXPERIMENT
Updated: Mar 20, 2018
I’m writing from New Orleans, where I am attending the National Conference on Education, presented by the School Superintendents Association.
For students (and professors) of education like myself, New Orleans is a great place to visit. The reason is not because "N'awlins" is one of the world's most fascinating and visited cities. Or because it’s home to an incredibly unique melting pot of culture, food and music. The reason is the legislative act of 2005 (Act 35), which became the mechanism for transferring failing schools into the Recovery School District (RSD) on a wholesale basis. I wanted to see for myself the post-Katrina free education enterprise zone that was, five years after ACT 35, referred to by then Education Secretary Arne Duncan as the "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans" because it forced the community to take steps to improve low-performing public schools. A local superintendent colleague of mine from the LA area and I set off on a day trip to visit each ward and sample the aftermath of one of education’s most debated reform efforts.
The day before (and the day after) I visited schools and talked with students, parents, and educators, much like Kristen Buras did for her 2014 book, Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance, a must read for all educators.
In the interest of providing background information for the students in my upcoming summer course in Resource Allocation, I am going to provide a brief historical context. In 2003, two years prior to Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana legislature created the Recovery School District (RSD), due to numerous failing schools. Then came Hurricane Katrina (August 29, 2005). Shortly thereafter (November, 2005) the Louisiana legislature passed Act 35. The new law lowered the academic criteria that made a school eligible for takeover and empowered the state to takeover 100 plus “low performing” schools. The RSD was given the vast majority of New Orleans public schools, leaving just a few high-performing schools to be run by the Orleans Parish School Board. Investors and foundations the likes of Gates, Broad, Fisher, WalMart, and Bloomberg all supported the cause. Foundations alone invested about $17.5 million into the charter school reform effort, outdone only by the United States Department of Education, at $28 million. Several for-profit companies managed these new charter schools (between then and now all of the for-profits have disappeared and have given way to not-for-profit enterprises).
Repeatedly referred to as a miracle and widely acclaimed as a positive game changer over the years since its inception, that’s not exactly what I have read or observed, upon much closer investigation. My visit to New Orleans confirmed my belief. History is already showing and invariably will prove over time that despite the claims that this charter school experiment (enacted during the George W. Bush Administration – as was NCLB) is a model for school reform and should be replicated around the country, it will largely be regarded favorably only as an experiment in charter school reform. However, according to John White, the Louisiana State Superintendent of Education since 2012, undeniable progress has been made since Katrina. White claims that although New Orleans public schools serve one-third fewer students than they did before Katrina, they send twice as many to college. White is the architect of Louisiana Believes, the state’s noble plan to ensure every child is on track to college or a professional career.
Another book that we study in my class to offer a contrast to Buras’ work is Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children (2013).
Like State Superintendent White, Carr concludes that New Orleans schools have improved in the decade since Katrina but warns that education (charters or non-charter) is no panacea for poverty.
Eleven years after ACT 35 transformed New Orleans schools (for better or worse depending on who you believe), the state of Louisiana signed into law Senate Bill 432 (2016). This law transferred oversight of 52 charter schools, serving nearly 30,000 students, from the state to local authorities, thus beginning a new phase in the transformation of New Orleans schools.
I learned that once again poverty has no foils and remains mostly undefeated when it comes to predicting a student's life trajectory (birthright). But I also returned to my position as superintendent inspired to never stop trying. Even though the war hasn’t been going all that well….a few key battle victories keep all of us soldiers fighting.
…and the beignets were really good, in a really good raised doughnut kind of way.