New Orleans’ Charter School Revolution

By Nathan Kiernan

A parent picks up her children after a school day at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School for Science and Technology in the Lower 9th Ward.

At McDonogh 42 Charter School in New Orleans’ 7th ward, a long orderly line of middle

school students wearing colorful masks, blue McDonogh 42 polos, and khakis wait for the school

bus to take them back home to their various neighborhoods. The children tease one another about

their earlier game of foursquare at recess and debate who has the coolest backpack. The students

here are part of one of the largest experiments in education policy in America. McDonogh 42 is

one of the eighty-six public charter schools in New Orleans.

On August 29th, 2005, just before the start of the school year, Hurricane Katrina made

landfall and the resulting failure of the city’s levee system left 80% of the city underwater. The

storm devastated the city and scattered students, parents, teachers, and staff all around the

country, leaving the school year in doubt. The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) was unable

to create a plan to reopen schools following the storm. Education reformers seized the

opportunity to enact the largest transformation in public education policy in the country.

In an emergency legislative session in November 2005, the Louisiana State Legislature

and Governor Blanco approved Act No. 35, which allowed the state to seize authority of any

school within New Orleans performing below the state average. As a result, 107 of the lowest-

performing schools under OPSB authority were then placed under the authority of The Recovery

School District, a branch of the Louisiana Department of Education. The change led to a mass

layoff of more than 7,000 teachers and staff.

The Recovery School District used its power to promote a pro-charter school agenda. By

2014, every school under The Recovery School District’s control was converted to a charter

school. Encouraged by improving test scores and the growing political momentum behind the

charter school model, OPSB governed schools soon followed suit. By 2019, every public school

in New Orleans was a charter school. It is the only major city in the country with such a high

portion of charter schools.

Charter schools are non-profits that receive a performance contract to operate from a

governing body, either the state or the district. They have the autonomy to set their own

curriculum, school policies make all staffing decisions, and allocate their own finances as they

see fit. Charter schools promised more accountability, innovation, and choice. No longer were

students assigned to a school based on their residential neighborhood, instead, parents were free

to apply to have their child enroll in charter schools across the city. If a charter school failed to

meet a standard of school performance, determined by standardized test scores, or failed to

attract enough students, their charter would not be reauthorized, or it would be revoked. The

system is predicated on the market-driven competition for contract renewals and student

enrollment.

Prior to Katrina, New Orleans was home to some of the worst-performing public schools

in the country. The district ranked 67th out of 68 districts in Louisiana in math and reading test

scores. According to the Louisiana Department of Education, in 2004 only 16.5% of New

Orleans public school students attended schools with a better School Performance Score than the

state average. In 2004, New Orleans students had a high school graduation rate of 56%. The

OPSB, which oversaw the public schools at the time, was riddled with corruption, scandal, and

financial crisis.

Rev. Torin Sanders, the former President of the OPSB, agreed that the public school

system was underperforming pre-Katerina. He said, “There were definitely severe problems. I

think in District 7 there were like 24 schools in my district and 18 of them or so were rated

academically acceptable, which was like the lowest rating. The buildings were, most of them

were built around either World War II or between World War I and World War II, and then

financially, it was distressed also”. He added, “It’s hard to learn in a physical environment that is

so, you know, detrimental, so to speak. There was asbestos, there was just tons of differed

maintenance for many years.”

Systemic racism played a role in the pre-Katerina school quality and still efforts

educational outcomes today. Like many cities in the nation, in the 1960s there was a mass

exodus of White residences from New Orleans to local suburbs. The so-called White-flight left

the city’s tax base greatly reduced and increased the portion of socio-economically

disadvantaged students the city was responsible for. Similar trends continue today with Black

students making up a disproportionate amount of attendance in public school, while a

disproportionate amount of White parents opt to send their kids to private schools. Even within

the public school system Blacks students are disadvantaged, in 2019 75% of White students

attended an “A” or “B” rated school compared to only 20% of Black students.

Following the post-storm reforms, New Orleans public schools saw their performances

improve. The Education Research Alliance, led by Professor Doug Harris, the Department Chair

of Economics at Tulane University, concluded that the change to charter schools was associated

with increases in student achievement, high school graduation, college entry, and college

graduation. Their 2018 report found the reforms were responsible for between a 3% and 9%

increase in high school graduation rate and between an 11 and 16 percentile increase in

standardized subject test scores.

Students depart from McDonogh 42 Charter School in the 7th Ward after a day of in-person learning. 

In a 2015 interview with The74, Harris summarized his research by saying, “No matter

what measure you look at, New Orleans has improved compared to the state. Whether it’s the

state test scores in grades 3–8, or the ACT, or high school graduation, or college entry —

everything looks better in New Orleans”. Harris argued that the willingness to hold fail schools

accountable, by closing charter schools who do not meet a certain standard is a large contributor

to the results. He added that by comparing Orleans Parish to the baseline of the rest of the state,

they controlled for many of the efforts of the storm, such as population displacement, because

much of so much of Louisiana was also experienced effects from Katrina.

Critics say that charter schools improve their test scores by cherry-picking their students

and leaving behind the city’s most vulnerable populations. Prior to 2016, there were no

centralized expulsion standards for the district, which allowed schools to more easily expel a

student who did not meet their standards. Furthermore, the charter school model disincentives

individual schools to take on the challenge of educating special-education students. To character

schools, special-education students represent a greater financial burden for the school with a little

pay-off in the form of better test scores.

Lauren Jewett, an executive council member at United Teachers of New Orleans, is a

special education teacher at KIPP Morial Primary. She said that the focus on testing takes away

time she would like to spend giving more experiential learning instruction to her students. She

said, “I think a standardized test, well, it is standardized, you know, having everybody sit for the

same kind of assessment, given in the same kind of way, of course there’s accommodation, but

it’s not always really capturing a student’s true knowledge”. She adds that she knows her value as

a teacher and her students’ value as learners cannot be captured by one score.

Some educators worry that standardized tests are the wrong way to gauge student

attainment altogether. Dave Cash, a Technology teacher at Rooted School, worries about how the

tests systematically disadvantage minority students. He said, “[Standardized tests] were designed

to, you know, preserve a social order, a White supremacist social order to ensure that like White

students would continue to get access to the best secondary education and students of color

would not.” He added, “It’s hard to do well on something that isn’t designed for you.”

Jennifer Celeste Lay, a Political Science professor who studies New Orleans education

politics, said, “I have done some focus groups and some targeted polling, and the results suggest

that parents like being able to choose schools for their kids, but they remain frustrated about

OneApp, the treatment of students with special needs, and continuing disparities”. The OneApp

is the online system that parents use to apply for registration at charter schools across the city.

While some parents are happy about the improving test scores, they are also bothered by

the new logistics of a school system without neighborhoods borders. One lower 9 th ward resident

said they knew parents with their son attending school in the lower 9 th ward and his brother

attending school in New Orleans East. The logistics add unnecessary complications to their daily

plans.

Bruce Baker, a professor of Education Theory and Policy at Rutgers University, contends

that the increase in per-pupil funding along with, not the market-based reforms, are responsible

for the educational gains in New Orleans. The per-pupil spending increased by around $1,000

from 2005 to 2018 as a result of an increase in federal dollars following Katerina. Rev. Sanders

seconded this theory by saying, “Right after Katrina, the good news is that our system received a

huge infusion of tax money from the Feds. Our per-pupil spending went up dramatically for at

least 10 years. When you ask the question, how well did they do, like on the one hand I was

saying, well, they better have improved. They got a whole lot more money than the system had

in the past… and it’s like, well, did we really get the bang for our buck?”

Professor Harris refutes Baker’s claim by saying there is ample evidence that pre-

Katerina governance model did not allocate resources well. In a letter responding to the criticism,

he wrote, “In the pre-reform period, we have provided considerable evidence that resources were

being used inefficiently. This is why we believe it is unlikely that the same infusion of funds to

New Orleans, by itself, would not have generated the same improvements in student outcomes

seen elsewhere.”

Regardless of how you attribute the rise in school performance following Katerina, Rev.

Sanders said the improvements are not nearly enough. He wants to hold New Orleans to the

same standard as the rest of the country, not just achieving average scores in Louisiana. He said,

“The question should be are we in the game with the other 50 states.” Even after all the post-

storm improvement, in 2019 more than 60% of the district’s school were graded a “D” or “F” by

the Louisiana Department of Education.

The system remains unequal for White and Black students. Professor Lay said, “Racial

disparities in educational outcomes continue. Significant disparities also continue in terms of

which schools students attend. Selective admission schools enroll more White students as a

proportion compared to open enrollment schools.”

A senior administrator at McDonogh 42 Charter School said this year has been hard work.

They say he has kids with difficult backgrounds, many with just one parent in the picture, some

with only a grandparent. It’s been made even harder by the learning challenges posed by

COVID-19. Absenteeism is rising during the pandemic and many kids are falling behind. Even

still, he thinks the system gives them a chance to help, “I feel we do right by the kids. It’s hard

on the teachers, man. Lots of hours. But we need to do right by these kids.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s