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Is New Orleans a preview of Broad’s charter expansion plan in LA?

Craig Clough | October 23, 2015

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Eli Broad

Were it to come to fruition, the Broad Foundation‘s recently announced plan to expand charter schools in LA Unified to include half of all district students would create a system that is unprecedented in size and scope across the United States. LA Unified already has more charter students than any in the nation.

Whether expressing support or opposition to the plan, people on both sides have pointed to New Orleans as a rationale for their views. Why? New Orleans is the only major city in the nation where the vast majority of schools are charters, thereby showing what they can and cannot achieved when they have such a large presence in an urban district.

Aside from that, the Broad Foundation has invested millions into schools and organizations that operate in New Orleans and just this week named Paul Pastorek, who was education superintendent in Louisiana from 2007 to 2011, to oversee its charter expansion efforts in Los Angeles, making New Orleans all the more a model for LA Unified.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana took over the district and converted it to an all-charter system. But judging this as a success or failure proves just how polarizing the idea of charter schools can be.

The 10-year anniversary of Katrina passed in August, and news organizations large and small took an in-depth look at the school district. Did a consensus emerge? Judging from extensive media coverage: No, and far from it.

While the district’s students showed big gains in test scores and graduation rates, the means to achieve these results have proven controversial, perhaps showing the only real connection between Los Angeles and New Orleans is the conflicting, confusing and polarizing information Angelenos will be fed about charters in the coming months, should the Broad initiative move forward.

What follows is a roundup of media stories and commentaries on Katrina’s 10th anniversary, focused on the changes in New Orleans schools. By no measure is there unanimity of opinion:

Many will point to competition and choice as the drivers of improvement in New Orleans student outcomes. Though the validity of such claims remains disputed by educational researchers, it’s clear that competition inspires school leaders to make different decisions about how they allocate funds and expend their time and energy. US News & World Report, by Jerusha Conner

New Orleans students have learned more and they are better-prepared for college and careers than they were before the city’s education reform. Reason, by Savannah Robinson

Community members mourned the closures of public schools that had served as neighborhood hubs. Students at no-excuses charters described feeling like they were in prison, or bootcamp. Teachers felt demoralized, like they didn’t have a voice in the classroom. Parents complained about a lack of black teachers. In interview after interview, people said the same thing: The system doesn’t put children’s needs first. In These Times, by Colleen Kismet

The quality of graduation rates have dramatically improved from 54 percent in 2004 to 80 percent today, as well as gains in math and reading. Why? Because it’s not about the schools, it’s about the kids., by Amelia Hamilton  

There is also growing evidence that the reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data. “We don’t want to replicate a lot of the things that took place to get here,” said Andre Perry, who was one of the few black charter-school leaders in the city. “There were some pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain,” Mr. Perry acknowledged, including “suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special needs kids well.” New York Times, by Andrea Gabor

“They just got beaten down,” Bigard said of her children. “Whether [the school system] is better or not, I don’t know … I’ve seen too many fishy things. I don’t trust the current numbers.” The Guardian, by David Uberti

In many ways, the move to public charter schools has been beneficial, but it’s not without critics: Some dislike how far children have to travel to school, since neighborhood schools no longer exist. Others find the application process too complicated. And, the rankings are still relative: New Orleans moved up from the second-worst school system in the state to match the state average, but Louisiana still has one of the lowest ranked school systems in the country. National Geographic, by Kelsey Nowakowsk

The charters, which have open admission and public accountability, have produced spectacular results. Before the reforms, New Orleans students — like overwhelmingly poor students in most places — lagged far behind more affluent students. Since the reforms, the achievement gap has nearly closed. New York magazine, by Jonathan Chait

Parent and New Orleans public education advocate Karran Harper Royal testified how New Orleans’ all-charter Recovery District has removed “choice” from parents. She pointed how out how charter lottery systems means “charter schools now choose families. They cast out the ones with expensive to educate disabilities or who test poorly.” The Progressive, by Cynthia Liu

Amid the rubble and rebuilding efforts, unseen by most Americans was a profound rebuilding of a major American city’s education system. Tragically, it took a hurricane to do this. But out of Katrina’s death and destruction rose one of the greatest transformations ever witnessed in American public education. Orange County Register, by Gloria Romero

“It’s not like the schools are great because we still have a long way to go. Basically we have gone from an F to a C, from abysmal to satisfactory, but enormous progress has been made.” International Business Times, by Lydia Smith

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