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.'
The current Bush administration also clearly sees the city as a national charter laboratory. As the Institute for Southern Studies pointed out in its 'One Year After Katrina' report, the U.S. Department of Education pledged $44.8 million to Louisiana for post-Katrina charter schools but offered no comparable funding to reestablish traditional neighborhood or district schools.
Charter advocates such as Kathryn Newmark and Veronique de Rugy have heralded the possibilities of New Orleans' charter agenda-accountability, school choice, less bureaucracy, and a less entrenched teachers' union. Writing for Education Next (Fall 2006), a journal published by the conservative Hoover Institution, they predict that foundations with names like Gates and Broad-deep-pocket groups that Newmark and de Rugy say would never have sunk money into the city's failing school system-will line up behind the new schools.
Critics of the new system, however, say that the revolution amounts to an 'educational land grab' that inexorably leads to the privatization of public education. Drawing from research by the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., the self-described activist publication Rethinking Schools (Fall 2006) warns against replacing even an admittedly failing school district with a 'scholastic shopping mall'-a mix of various charters, along with state-run and locally run schools. Such an approach, the magazine says, will only increase race and class segregation in New Orleans, as the better-funded charter schools compete for the best students with the most involved families.
What's more, families moving back to the city are learning that the familiar school down the street is no longer available because it's either been destroyed by the flood or is housing a charter that doesn't give preference to neighborhood kids. 'These students, clearly left behind, are disproportionately the poor, and those with special needs,' the Center for Community Change concludes in its report 'Dismantling a Community.'
Charter schools' defenders point out that the charters are required to admit special-needs kids. Meanwhile, students attending state-run schools reported all-too-familiar problems. Books and basic supplies were missing. Classrooms were overcrowded. The schools seemed unable even to provide basic safety to students and teachers. 'I never thought it could get worse,' says Karran Harper Royal, a local parent and education advocate. 'But it did.'
Can the charter experiment bring better schools to a flood-devastated city? It has a better chance than anything else out there, says John Ayers, vice president for communications at the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which has contracted with the state of Louisiana to review charter school applications. Royal isn't so optimistic, though she acknowledges that finally, people might start paying more attention to the children of New Orleans: 'The nation's eyes are upon us to see how this experiment works.'
Michael Tisserand's book Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-Struck Students Created a School to Remember will be published in July by Harcourt.