Charter Schools in New Orleans – A byproduct from Hurricane Katrina

By: Morgan Grant, CEI Intern
Editorial Note: In light of the significant impact of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria and the beginning of another hurricane season, we investigated the educational solution to Katrina. There are many reasons the solution to improving education in New Orleans after Katrina is in need of improvement, itself. However, the pros and cons of charter schools are many — we are not attempting to evaluate the overall impact or quality of charter schools in this article.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans (NOLA) in 2005, it was unknown how Louisiana would bounce back. The damages from Katrina negatively impacted the New Orleans school system as multiple students were unable to attend school due to reconstruction. Schools were completely destroyed and the building structures were unsafe as the city sought financial aid from the federal government, humanitarian efforts and support from organizations like Teach for America (Kimmett, 2015; Toch, 2015). 

As a solution, New Orleans’ schools were transformed dramatically in attempts to save the once-failing education system. As a result, the New Orleans’ Recovery School District (RSD) became the first all charter school district in the US. As recently as 2015, reporters were citing some positive benefits from NOLA. Standardized test scores have increased as the number of students passing these exams have doubled from 30% to now 62% (Osborne, 2016; Toch, 2015). In 2004 only 37% of New Orleans high school graduates registered for college, but in 2014 60% of graduates enrolled (Workneh & Klein, 2015).

However, since the formation of the New Orleans RSD, there haves been negative views regarding their operation in the area (Kimmett, 2015; Osborne, 2016; Quigley, 2017; Toch, 2015; Troeh, 2017). Data suggests that the establishment of charter schools in New Orleans may have some harmful effects due to strict policies, unethical selectivity, and high teacher turnover rates (Kimmett, 2015; Quigley, 2017; Troeh, 2017).

Lack of accountability, fraud, and racial and economic discrimination? Charter schools are public schools that are funded by taxpayer money, but are managed separately from the local school district. They are run independently as they follow their own set of rules and policies supervised under a board of directors. In 2016 the NACCP held a forum to discuss the poor management of the charter schools in New Orleans. Since 70% of the RSD consists of charter schools it was questioned whether or not these schools should continue to operate as they do (Kimmett, 2015). They found that a large part of the NOLA charter school system was not held accountable for fraud and racial and economic discrimination practices. In response the NAACP called for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools, however this has been ineffective as little has changed (Quigley, 2017). 

Rigid Behavioral Expectations. NOLA Charter schools have been known to implement extremely strict policies where students are reprimanded over small offenses. These policies were initially in place to maintain learning as test results in the area were below the nation’s average prior to Katrina. In order to play catch up the charter systems felt that they needed to keep their students on track by enforcing these standards. The ‘no-excuses approach’ has been heavily criticized as students, teachers, and parents are not pleased with how they have been enforced. Some have claimed that these authoritarian policies stifle positive interactions as these students are more likely to monitor themselves in fear of punishment (Kimmett, 2015; Troeh, 2017). Some charters have found that with this approach, school attendance decreases and this negatively affects students’ grades and testing scores. Many have pointed out that these rigid standards do not accommodate children who may be ‘acting out’ due to having developmental disabilities or exposure to trauma (Troeh, 2017; Workneh & Klein, 2015).

Paulette Carter, the President of the Children’s Bureau of New Orleans, states ‘Behaviors have a reason. But often schools, because they have so many kids that they’re dealing with and so many different issues, often don’t really think about the reason behind those behaviors’ (Troeh, 2017).

As a result from low attendance rates, community criticism, and law suits from advocacy groups some charter schools have attempted to create discipline measures that are more student focused (Troeh, 2017). All schools from the RSD have now established polices that prevent schools from expelling students over low level offenses. All expulsions are also examined by a review board who have the power to overturned rulings they find to be unjust (Toch, 2015).

Admitting Whites and High Achieving Candidates. NOLA charter schools are at risk for losing funding if enough of their students test poorly. To prevent low scores, these schools have been using unethical tactics by admitting high achieving candidates while closing their doors to lower performing students. Minority students, low income students, and students with intellectual and developmental disabilities tend to be discriminated against as screening tends to prevent them from admission. Higher performing NOLA charter schools tend to be the most selective and are likely to admit white students over minorities (Kimmett, 2015; Osborne, 2016; Quigley, 2017).

While this is against the RSD’s open admissions policy, complex screening measures and excluding students is still a big problem with the charter schools in the area (Kimmett, 2015; Quigley, 2017; Toch, 2015). The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans funded a 2015 report in which they found that one in three charter schools used tactics to weed out students they deem as academically ‘inept’ (Kimmett, 2015). Currently eight out of ten students go to school farther away from their homes as they are not automatically enrolled to attend the nearest school (Osborne, 2016; Quigley, 2017). Prior to Katrina, the city was paying $18 million in transportation for students, but due to longer bus commutes it has increased to $30 million (Quigley, 2017).

New measures were implemented in in 2015, as the RSD district introduced a computer application system, in hopes of decreasing the risk of student discrimination during the screening process (Toch, 2015).

Questionable Administrative and Hiring Practices. NOLA charter schools have also been criticized over the gross amount spent on administration and the lack of resources for teaching. The Huffington Post reports that around 62 Charter school executives in the RSD district were known to have salaries over $100,000 which is similar to the superintendent’s salary who oversees all the traditional public schools in the Baton Rouge area (Quigley, 2017).

New Orleans’ charters have also come under fire over their hiring practices. Critics have pointed out that these schools tend to lack a racially diverse set of educators. The percentage of African American teachers in New Orleans have decreased from 74% to 51 % (Osborne, 2016; Quigley, 2017; Workneh & Klein, 2015). Educators at NOLA charter schools also tend to have less teaching experience and lower academic qualifications, thus affecting retention rates. Currently in the RSD District, the annual turnover rate is about 27% percent (Kimmett, 2015).

Good Enough? As of now the RSD is implemented in a majority of the public schools in New Orleans. Regardless of how effective or ineffective charter schools are, their presence will continue to dominate the NOLA school district for years to come. Although students from RSD charter schools tend to perform worse on standardized tests compared to their counterparts from traditional public schools; high school graduation rates in NOLA are higher than ever. Before Katrina the graduation rate was 50% and now it’s over 70% (Osborne, 2016; Toch, 2015; Workneh & Klein, 2015).

Some locals have admitted that while the charter schools are not the ‘best of the best’ it has provided them with a new hope after the storm. Despite the debate over the effectiveness of the charter schools in New Orleans, experts have claimed that the RSD has produced the fastest educational improvement ever seen in the US. Compared to New Orleans’ failing school system in 2004, NOLA charter schools have been able to at least provide us with some positive results such as increases in test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment (Osborne, 2016). However, does that mean the RSD shouldn’t strive for a more inclusive environment and ethical management of the charter system? When disaster strikes, what can be done so that children are able to attend high quality schools? Experience from Katrina suggests that replacing traditional schools with charters, at least as implemented after Katrina, may not be the best approach.

What to Do after a Natural Disaster? CEI looked into the Katrina aftermath, in light of the problems we saw in Texas and Puerto Rico after recent hurricanes. We had not kept up with what was happening with the charter schools in New Orleans, so were somewhat surprised about the issues that arose. CEI has worked with many charter schools in DC and some in Ohio and see them as a viable and vital part of the American school system. However, there are issues that emerged in New Orleans that we would hate to see repeated. We realize schools are under enormous pressure to achieve, however equity and fairness are major concerns as is the need for transparency and accountability.

References

Kimmett, C. (2015). 10 years after Katrina, New Orleans’ all-charter school system has proven a failure. In These Times.

Osborne, D. (2016) How New Orleans made charter schools work. Washington Monthly.

Quigley, B. (2017). New Orleans charter schools problems exposed at NAACP hearing. Huffington Post.

Toch, T. (2015). The big easy’s grand experiment.

Troeh, M. F. (2017). A ‘no excuses’ New Orleans charter school has a change of heart. WWNO.

Workneh, L., & Klein, R. (2015). 7 facts school leaders want you to know about kids in New Orleans.

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