In 2004, New Orleans was a city of failing schools. Two-thirds of the city schools were rated “Academically Unacceptable” under Louisiana’s accountability standards, the school system was bankrupt, and corruption was widespread.
Then Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, damaging or destroying two-thirds of the system’s school buildings and causing tens of thousands of people to flee the city.
But with this destruction came the opportunity to rebuild and reform. Five years later, the percentage of students attending a low-performing school had fallen by half, from 67 percent to 34 percent, and the average rate of improvement in the New Orleans public schools stood at three to four times the statewide rate.
These improvements are in large part attributed to the restructuring of the system. Well over half of the city’s 88 public schools are now charter schools that are independently operated but publicly authorized, funded, and evaluated. Seventy-one percent of the city’s public school students attend charter schools. In addition to autonomous charter organizations, New Orleans public schools are run by the state and the city school board, while private schools educate about one-third of the students in Orleans Parish.
With all school systems – district, state, and charter – operating without attendance zones, New Orleans has a system of public school choice. Multiple administrative structures with open enrollment have fostered competition and performance gains. With students able to apply for any school in the city, schools have to compete for students.
The competition and choice has had the largest impact on low-income families who previously lacked school choice by giving them access to generally superior schools in “good” neighborhoods from which they were formerly excluded. This competition and administrative flexibility has also created a laboratory for innovative instructional practices.
To add to the competition, the Louisiana Legislature passed the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence in 2008. The program provides scholarships for low-income children in failing schools in New Orleans to attend private schools of their choice. At the start of the 2010-2011 school year, 1,697 students received scholarships.
It took a devastating event to awaken a struggling school-system to the need for reforms. Thankfully, New Orleans was able to take advantage of the opportunity to reform the city’s school system by creating school flexibility and providing families with choice.
While not physically destructive like a hurricane, the cheating scandal and accreditation probation are damaging the confidence and effectiveness of the already low-performing Atlanta Public Schools. These struggles provide the system with an opportunity to reform – to offer its schools greater flexibility and its families more choice. Hopefully the school leaders and community will follow New Orleans’s example and seize this opportunity to turn the city’s schools into our country’s next great education success story.