The Myth That Charter Schools Have Saved New Orleans

The national media have praised the decision to let educators flood the Crescent City with charter schools, but the results don't match the hype.

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Kindergartners at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in New Orleans in 2007.
(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In Spike Lee's latest documentary, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, Katharine Montana explains why she chose to live in Humble, Texas, after levee floods destroyed her New Orleans home. "I was forced to make a financial decision for one simple reason," she tells us. "There is no education system for my son, who has autism. I am up here for that one purpose, and there are thousands of other families who can't go back because they have children who are disabled."

In an interview with The Root earlier this year, Spike Lee echoed the same argument. The problem is -- it's wrong. Schools in New Orleans do accept kids with special needs. However, Montana is right that under the current education system, in which most city schools have been taken over by the state, and many of those converted into independently chartered schools, it's become extremely difficult for students with special needs to find a school for enrollment. For those who do land in a school, services for students with mental disorders, behavioral problems and physical handicaps are lacking.

Montana is also right that more parents like her haven't moved back for these reasons. Families have attempted to place their disabled children in schools, but they have either been told that the school doesn't have special-needs services or been told, gently, that their child would be better served at another school. These problems occur often enough that a due-process complaint has been filed against the Louisiana Department of Education on behalf of 4,500 students in the city with disabilities.

These issues have conveniently been left out of a number of Pollyanna-ish media reports touting the messianic nature of charter schools, and how Hurricane Katrina was a "blessing" to New Orleans' children. A recent article at The Grio, "New Orleans Charter Schools Redefine Education Reform," reads: "The standardized test results for fourth, eighth and tenth grade public school students have gone up since the storm hit in 2005. This may have something to do with the increasing presence of charter schools, though it is not clear."

But test scores in those grades were already rising before the storm hit. Between 2003 and 2005, fourth-grade math results grew by 9 percent. Between 2007 and 2009, those results grew by 9.5 percent. In eighth-grade math, the growth in the percentage of kids scoring above basic levels between 2003 and 2005 was greater than the gains between 2007 and 2009. There has been a slight improvement in eighth-grade English and in math at the high school graduate level, but in both categories, the improvement in test scores builds on progress that was already occurring before the mass chartering of New Orleans.

Charter Schools and Higher Scores: The Missing Link

So far no link has been found between improved test scores and charter schools. A report on education included in "The New Orleans Index at Five," a study released by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center and the Brookings Institution, states that a "correlation between academic growth and the major post-storm reforms has not been demonstrated."

Still, that isn't nearly so bad as a blog by Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic, who traveled all the way to New Orleans from Washington, D.C., only to ask whether it was possible that Hurricane Katrina was a good thing. He "tweaked" his question, he says, for readers who may have misunderstood him, but he still asks if Katrina "did residents a favor or two." This echoes U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. ... It took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community."

So which residents got those favors? More than 100,000 people who lived in New Orleans have not moved back, either by choice or because they can't. After the floods, the Orleans Parish School Board didn't open the schools, having no money to do it, and the teachers' union contract expired. That school year of 2005-06, all school employees -- more than 7,500 teachers and principals -- were laid off. Of those teachers, 75 percent were African American.

When schools opened in the 2006-07 year, most fell under the state-run Recovery School District (RSD), an "educational unit" for failing schools that was created before Katrina. The schools were staffed with a new crop of teachers, most from outside the state and from national programs such as Teach for America. With no jobs, and with public and low-income housing still not revived by this time, many native teachers were not able to move back to New Orleans.

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