Education Politics Flood New Orleans

As the city struggles to rebuild, the debate over charter schools heats up

| Utne Reader March / April 2007


The best-run school system would have struggled with the demographics. Nearly 40 percent of the city's children lived below the poverty line. A quarter of the adults had not completed high school. A third of the schools were private or parochial, favored by families who had opted out of public schools altogether.

The New Orleans school system was anything but well run. For a decade, superintendents had cycled through the system at a rate of about one per year. The district's finances were in shambles. In an effort to weed out corruption, the FBI had set up an office at school district headquarters.

All of which might explain why, even before the floodwaters of August 2005 had subsided, the phrase 'silver lining' started popping up whenever planners began discussing schools. 'We are using this as an opportunity to take what was one of the worst school systems around and create one of the best and most competitive school systems in America,' Walter Isaacson, vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, told the Christian Science Monitor (Nov. 2005).

This unprecedented educational experiment would hinge on the success of charter schools-public schools that, though taxpayer-supported, can be run by either nonprofits or for-profit corporations. The schools are free to manage their own affairs as long as they fulfill the terms of a contract, or charter, with the city or state.



It was a pivotal time for the charter school movement, which had garnered bipartisan support with promises of efficiency and innovation, but was still dogged by skeptics wary of creeping school privatization. Just two weeks before Katrina, the U.S. Department of Education released a report showing that the test scores of charter school students had fallen behind those of their peers in traditional public schools. Advocates insisted that the results were inconclusive; in New Orleans, they said, theories could truly be put to the test.

By the middle of the 2006-07 school year, an astounding 62 percent of the city's public schools were being operated by charters. Though it will be years before their students' test scores can be fully analyzed, Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander, who served as U.S. secretary of education under the first President Bush, has already declared that New Orleans 'could serve as a model for urban education in the rest of the nation.'