As the fight over charter schools continues across the country, the Big Easy is taking a unique approach — New Orleans will begin the next school year with America’s first all-charter school district.
In September, Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) will close the last of its public schools that have not been turned into charters, leaving it a 100 percent charter school district not just in New Orleans, but across the state. This is most significant for New Orleans because it houses the vast maority of Louisiana's charter schools.
Run by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Baton Rouge, the RSD was created after Hurricane Katrina and tasked with improving standards at underperforming schools. More than 60 New Orleans institutions were moved out of the existing Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), and nearly all were converted to charter schools.
The six remaining traditional public schools in New Orleans — three elementary schools, one middle school, a high school and a secondary school encompassing grades 7 through 12 — are all run by OPSB. The OPSB also operates 14 charter schools.
There are charter schools — which receive public funding but are privately operated — in every major city, but no city has a higher percentage than New Orleans. Eighty-four of the city’s 89 schools operated by the RSD are already chartered, and 40,196 of New Orleans’ 44,614 students are enrolled in a charter school.
Those in favor of charter schools have been quick to note the turnaround in education.
Before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, 65 percent of the city’s public schools failed to meet standards, according to data from Louisiana, which U.S. News and World Report placed as 46th out of 50 states in a 2013 education ranking. The city fired approximately 7,000 teachers and public school employees, in the aftermath of the disaster, opting to completely start over with charter schools and with new teachers and other staffers.
The whole charter school situation has been problematic. I feel like it has really been forced on us in New Orleans because they’ve closed all our neighborhood schools.
Karran Harper Royal
New Orleans parent
Now only 6 percent of the schools are failing, educators say, and charter school supporters are heralding the turnaround as a major success.
“The fact that the academic performance levels are improving each year is a sign that the charter schools are working,” said Kathleen Padian, deputy superintendent of the OPSB. “The reason that there are so many charter schools is that this system had failed to provide an excellent education for a lot of children.”
But not everyone is pleased with the so-called transformation of the city’s schools.
New Orleans resident Karran Harper Royal has been a public school parent since 1991 and works as a parent advocate to help parents navigate the charter schools in the city.
Before the state took over the public schools, Royal’s son went to a high-performing magnet school — a public school with specialized courses or curriculum — and Royal was happy with the education her son was receiving. Now her son is a senior in a New Orleans charter school, and she is far from satisfied.
“The whole charter school situation has been problematic,” she said. “I feel like it has really been forced on us in New Orleans because they’ve closed all our neighborhood schools.”
She told Al Jazeera that while it may seem that charter schools are making a major impact on the quality of education in New Orleans, it’s little more than a sleight of hand.
Like many people, Royal says the reason charter schools seem to be performing so well is that the state is using a different, lower standard to measure their achievement, making it easier for schools to go from failing to successful.
“You can’t see past the propaganda on charter schools if you’re not in New Orleans,” she says. “I just ask people to look past the data because the data has been manipulated.”
She also says the state is making unequal comparisons to the old schools. The new schools are much smaller, and students who don’t perform as well or have behavioral problems or learning disabilities are moved to alternative schools to keep performance levels looking good, at least one on paper.
And because parents must apply for their child to get into a charter school, the schools can be much more selective about the students they admit, allowing them to recruit only the best-performing students and turn others away.
Some experts say that amounts to discrimination.
“The fundamental thing about charter schools, aside from how segregated they are — which tends to be extreme — is that they are designed in a way that produces more inequality,” said Gary Orfield, a University of California at Los Angeles professor and a senior researcher at the UCLA Civil Rights Project. He teaches at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, and his research focuses on civil rights, education policy, urban policy and minority opportunity.
“You basically have all these independent actors being held accountable to no one, doing their own thing, and when they can, they are choosing and expelling their students how and when they want," Orfield said.
An analysis of Louisiana’s suspension data by the American Federation of Teachers sent to Al Jazeera showed some charter schools with suspension rates higher than 50 percent.
RSD disputes Royal and Orfields' claims. A representative of the district told Al Jazeera that charter schools cannot pick and choose their students, and they aren't allowed to expel students with behavioral issues or learning disabilities.
The district uses a centralized enrollment process through the website enrollnola.org that RSD says does not take account of race, academic history, learning abilities or other distinguishable characteristics.
RSD also says it uses a centralized expulsion process - meaning all explusion hearings are heard by a single hearing officer, and they say their expulsion rate is 20 percent lower than the statewide rate.
RSD also says it uses the same performance standards as the state does to measure success at charters, and that "the the minimum performance bar has been raised 25 percent."
Or as Orfield explained the transition to charter schools, “The reason it’s being done is this blind faith in a private initiative and really a disrespect for public access of any sort, and it’s part of a much border political struggle over whether there is an important role for the public sector. We’re seeing the coming apart of public institutions based on a blind faith that private institutions will work.”
In a study published by the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School in 2010, researchers found that while New Orleans is a majority black city, some 80 percent of the city’s white students attend the most selective, higher-performing schools and leave the students of color and lower economic status in the low-ranking schools.
According to the study, students of color were three and a half times as likely to attend a very high-poverty, low-performing school in 2009, the year the study was conducted; 65 percent of students of color attended a high-poverty school, compared with 19 percent of white students.
Black students were most likely to attend a high-poverty school, at 69 percent, followed by Latinos, at 46 percent; Asians, at 41 percent; and American Indians, at 43 percent.
Critics say the addition of so many charter schools has only exacerbated the problem of segregation, be it racial, economic or class-based.
The Minnesota report says charter schools have been “growing in a haphazard way in response to strong financial incentives and not because of their superior education performance” and that growth has “seriously undermined the equality of opportunity among public school students.”
The report questions the sustainability of such rapid charter school growth in New Orleans, saying that there are signs it cannot continue on its current trajectory because the charters are already at or near their capacity and that the ability of charters to serve the educational needs of children and teens will eventually “erode as the post-Katrina aid to the city of New Orleans declines.”
Despite this, cities across the country are watching the New Orleans move to charter schools. There are efforts in Washington, D.C.; Detroit; Kansas City, Mo.; Newark, N.J.; and Philadelphia, among others to replicate the New Orleans way of schooling, in part or completely, in an effort to turn around struggling city schools.
All those cities have large, socioeconomically disadvantaged populations of color, and the majority live in the inner city, where public schools often receive much less funding and are much more segregated then schools in better-off suburban areas.
There are also segregation concerns in major cities. A recent report said that New York had the most-segregated schools in the United States, and cities that have struggled with integration and equity among their schools, like Little Rock, Ark., and Charlotte, N.C., are ending busing programs that have helped achieve more racial balance.
Some experts have even wondered if charter schools are just a new way to reinforce decades-old segregation.
“Charter schools have a different set of rules that they can play by because they can pick and choose the students they want,” NAACP education manager Evans Moore told Al Jazeera in an interview conducted in September. “We have to be careful that we aren’t working with a double standard, where charter schools, which are public schools, have the option to pick students, where other public schools have to take the students they are assigned.”
But Mitchell Brown, a teacher in a New Orleans charter school, says charter schools are making a major difference in the lives of students and giving young teachers the help they need to reach their students.
“I wanted to work in a charter school because I knew the charter schools would give me more creativity and freedom to make sure I’m able to give the kids I teach are the best possible education,” said Brown, a graduate of North Carolina A&T.
He has been teaching for two years and teaches eighth grade, working with students in a special education program. He opted to work with Teach for America — a program for recent college graduates — and the organization placed him in a charter school. He said his job would have been much more challenging if he had to work in a public school because, he said, he wouldn’t have had the same level of financial and professional support.
“The biggest difference is that the teachers [in charter schools] are more motivated and there are more resources” to get the job done, Brown said.
He acknowledged that it is common for a charter school to be allocated more money than a traditional public school, since charter schools often receive private funding from wealthy foundations or major corporations while public schools rely on funding drawn from the local tax base. He would like to see a better balance between the two systems.
There is evidence aside from the improved performance records that the charter school experiment is working. A study by the Cowen Institute at Tulane University shows that so far, the charter schools have had a mostly positive impact on the city, but only time will be able to determine the long-term impact.
The report highlights data from a 2009 Stanford University study, which has charts showing significant gains in math and reading, particularly among African-American students, but does not specify percentage increases or overall score improvements.
Still, New Orleans resident Royal thinks the charter movement in the city has gone too far. “Our school system was not the best before — don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But we did not need charter schools to come in here and replicate the same problems of the last system.”
This article has been updated as of April 9 to reflect further information provided by the Recovery School District, which contacted Al Jazeera America after the article was published.