Recently released scores for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” show that charter schools in Louisiana are outperforming charter schools nationally and are holding their own with traditional public schools in both Louisiana and the nation, as a whole. After a bumpy start, the charter school initiative in Louisiana appears to be paying dividends. Perhaps nowhere is that underscored more than in the newly formed charter school alliance in New Orleans.
First, a bit of background. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, there were 64,000 students enrolled in the New Orleans public school system. Enrollment was in a serious decline, due in part to an overall out-migration of population, but primarily due to safety concerns and the dismal performance of the Orleans public school system. Today, there are 32,000 public school students in a totally revamped system. The Orleans Parish School Board operates only five public schools in the new system. The Recovery School District (RSD), overseen by the Louisiana Department of Education, operates 33 schools and the remaining 43 schools—a majority—are independent public charter schools. Last year, 57 percent of public school students in Orleans Parish attended charter schools (no other urban area in the nation has a higher percentage), and the results so far are encouraging.
The focus of the charter school movement in New Orleans was to decentralize the delivery of and decision making in education, and to upgrade the quality of principals and teachers. Trying to attract high-quality management and instructors would have been impossible in the old system. Incompetence, misplaced resources, and political interference were too rampant to draw the quality of personnel that the charter schools are now attracting.
Early measurements of success in the new system are encouraging. Numerous Orleans Parish charter schools have taken the same students previously in the system and have achieved results significantly above the academically unacceptable level that characterized most of the schools under the old system. Two of these schools are most worthy of mention. One of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools, known as MacDonough #15, had the highest math scores in the RSD last year, achieving levels higher than the state average. The scores of Martin Behrman Elementary School on the West Bank (another charter school) were equally impressive. Both were previously failing schools.
Many charter schools in the modern New Orleans public school district are driving change and achieving significant results. The question is, will the reforms that led to their creation remain in place, or will the system return to the miasma from whence it came? The old system existed more for employment and patronage than for education. If the new system is going to succeed, the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education must protect it from the predators who are starting to circle again, and hard-fought reforms passed by the Legislature will need to be protected as well.
If the charter school model that appears to be working in New Orleans continues to be successful, it would be transferable to other school districts, particularly those with a large number of failing and failed schools. New Orleans’ experience is laying the groundwork for a statewide movement that could transform public education in Louisiana.
If public officials allow the public school system in New Orleans to slide back into mediocrity, it could be the most tragic loss in a parish decimated by tragic losses. If the kids come first, that won’t happen.