December 12, 2022
An article in a recent issue of the New Orleans Tribune brought me back to my years of critical writing about educational reform. It confronted me with the continuing challenge we face in sorting out the conflicting opinions about whether radical reform efforts (charters, vouchers, and privatization) have helped or harmed students and their communities.
Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans provided an opportunity for educational “reformers” to test their belief that traditional public schools had failed and that too many children were being left behind and that the system needed to be radically changed. They saw the devastation of this city as the opportunity that their guru, economist Milton Friedman (Capitalism and Freedom) had been calling for when he wrote that “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.”
And so, they approached New Orleans as a blank slate and imposed a new model for public education. The changes to the structure of public education were drastic. As Mike Ludwig noted in a 2017 Truthout article, “After the storm devastated the city, the state took over the school board and began an unprecedented experiment in school privatization, dismantling the teachers’ union and firing 7,000 school employees…a state board elected by Louisiana’s white majority took over the New Orleans school system from the local board elected by the city’s Black majority.” While, in 2022, the local school board has regained control of all of the schools in the city, all remain charter schools, managed and led by non-public organizations under contract with the New Orleans LA Board of Education. According to Next City: “The law that brought New Orleans schools back under the local school board´s jurisdiction also handed charter schools autonomy over financial, human resources, curricula, materials and programming. Charter school board members aren´t elected. “
We know that before the wind and water of Katrina devastated the city, its public schools were among the worst in the nation; improvement was needed. We know that they were not fulfilling their obligations to their children. What we don’t know and are continuing to tussle with is whether this drastic change has actually worked and if things have indeed gotten better.
What we did not know was whether the problems were the result of a failed educational model or the result of entrenched racism and economic inequity, problems that transcended the city’s schools.
This November Louisiana’s Education Department released its 2022 report card for public schools across the state. And it told us that more than 17 years after Katrina’s devastation and the beginning of this experiment in educational reform half of New Orleans’ schools were still doing badly. They received grades of D or F.
And here the challenge of sorting out whether this is an indicator, for a system as bad as New Orleans was pre-Katrina, of how to see these results. Have the reforms kept the district from getting even worse and so were worth the effort and the price? Or were they faiures that had heaped another burden on the backs of New Orleans’ children for no benefit?
The New Orleans Tribune’s reading of the data is that their schools are still struggling badly. The data shows, said the Tribune, that the schools as no better than they were pre-Katrina. “But there are 65 charter schools loosely operating under the cavalier control of the Orleans Parish School Board and based on the 2022 school performance scores released in November by the Louisiana Department of Education, more than half of them are D and F schools. In other words, they are failing or close to it. In fact, if the SPS of 87.4 that was purposefully raised to take over public schools in 2005 were applied right now all but four of the 65 NOLA public schools could be taken over TODAY! Let’s say it again, another way — if the same standard that was intentionally changed to take over and destroy public education in Orleans Parish in 2005 were applied to the 65 public charter schools operating under NOLA Public Schools today, a full 61 of those schools would be considered failing by the state RIGHT NOW! “
If this is a correct conclusion, the experiment in New Orleans has failed. And financial, social, and political costs have been wasted. And the harm done to a community in need has been large.
To check myself from leaping to this conclusion I reached out to Leslie Jacobs, a former school Board member and supporter of the reform efforts who I had dialogued years ago about New Orleans schools. Her assessment was more tempered. In an email to me, she wrote that “pre-Katrina- we were a horrific school district- arguably the worst in the country- and we were that way when I went on the NOLA school board in 1993 and we were tied with St Helena parish as being the worst district in the state from the start of accountability in 1999 until post-Katrina. After Katrina, we showed tremendous growth in the first 10 years and became a mediocre school district. For the last 5-7, we have plateaued, but we are still a whole lot better than we were from at least 1993-2005.”
At Ms. Jacobs’ suggestion, I looked at the work of Doug Harris, founding Director of The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans and Tulane Professor of Economics/Schlieder Foundation Chair in Public Education, who has been researching the impact of educational reform in New Orleans since it began. Their research bears out this more balanced view:
“Conclusion #1: The New Orleans reforms have caused large gains in student achievement…New Orleans’ performance ranking relative to other statewide districts increased from 67th of 68 districts before the reforms to 42nd afterwards.
Conclusion #2: Academic results have emerged through gradual improvement over time, due in part to the process of school closure and takeover.
Conclusion #3: The reforms had some unintended consequences—for equity, discipline, and income-based segregation—but other potential consequences did not occur. For example, student mobility declined, and there were no consistent trends in racial segregation.
Conclusion #4: The city’s reforms significantly changed the teacher workforce and the way teachers viewed their work. Whether these changes were helpful is a significant point of contention.
Conclusion #5: School spending increased by 13% with the reforms, which may partially explain the overall improvement in outcomes…these funds were used mainly to increase administrative spending, and instructional spending declined.
Conclusion #6: The state’s school voucher program, the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), a related type of school reform, initially had negative effects and now seems to show no effect on student outcomes…
Conclusion #7: The above conclusions call into question some basic assumptions about the hallmarks of quality teachers and appropriate use of school spending, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of market-based school reform. School autonomy, choice, and competition also come with a loss of economies of scale, increased transportation costs, and difficulty in addressing system-wide challenges.
Conclusion #8: Whether other cities can expect similar academic benefits from New Orleans-style reforms remains uncertain. These reforms are most likely to work in urban districts that are attractive to young educators and where school districts are very low performing. New Orleans is an extreme case on all of these dimensions.”
New Orleans has been transformed into an all-charter school district. While a locally elected school board has returned it is, by law, given limited control over a district in which all of its schools are privately managed charters. The board and its staff are left to lead a collection of separately governed schools. They are responsible for assessing how to evaluate school performance and based on this assessment, periodically decide to extend a school’s charter to force it close. District leadership is a challenge of coalition building, bringing individual school leadership into alignment with a common vision with limited power to push change forward.
It is a district whose schools still struggle to educate its more than 40,000 students. It faces a shrinking student population, therefore needing to consider how to reduce the number of schools equitably; it is a district that still struggles to find adequate funding to meet the continuing challenges of struggling academic performance, economic and racial segregation, and political unrest.
And this decentralized model, which reflects the core philosophy of school reformers has yet to prove it can work. Can the “silent hand” of the marketplace effectively lead to decisions that force the good of the whole to be balanced with the good of each of its parts? We don’t know.
What New Orleans is able to teach us is that the ideas of educational reforms are not panaceas. Converting schools into just another product, to be selected by customers/parents, may allow for-profit organizations to profit from public education but is not enough to ensure quality improvement and educational success. And even if it is bringing some improvement, it is not enough to overcome the structural, community-wide issues of racism and economic inequity.
But that’s something, I think, we already knew. Using an entire city as a laboratory was not something we should ever have done if we were not willing to take on the bigger issues we still face.
For the district’s students, this is more than a political debate. It is more than an argument between scholars and educators. It is about their lives. Whether or not the district would have been worse without the reform efforts is the wrong question to be asked. Where it is today is a sign that it still fails to give all of its students the best chance for a better life.