Free Enterprise Staff  | August 31, 2015

10 Years Post-Katrina, New Orleans Schools Are Better Than Ever

This post originally appeared on Above the Fold, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s digital platform featuring analysis, commentary, and real stories about the intersection of government and business.

A decade ago, public education in New Orleans was nobody’s idea of a success story. And when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, the city’s beleaguered school system was virtually decimated–a further blow to an already troubled system.

But in recovering from that tragedy, city leaders in New Orleans asked a radical question: what would you do differently if you could redesign the public school system from the ground up? They came up with a dramatic new approach, converting the K-12 system almost entirely to charter schools, thereby allowing families to choose where and how their children would learn.

As a result, New Orleans has emerged at the forefront of an innovation revolution in education.

“One of the strengths of New Orleans is how well it can innovate and solve problems,” New Orleans education reform activist Leslie Jacobs, who played a key role in the transition, tells U.S. News and World Report. “As neighborhoods were rebuilt, families would move, but you didn’t want to have to make them pull out of school. So we began the pure choice model out of necessity and then stayed with it.”

In May, the Washington, D.C., business incubator 1776 and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation published a joint report, “Innovation That Matters: How City Networks Drive Civic Entrepreneurship.” That report examines in detail how New Orleans is one of eight cities around the U.S. crafting new solutions to long-standing challenges like health care, education, energy and city management by embracing an entrepreneurial start-up ethos.

The New Orleans charter school experiment is a case study in how adopting a more entrepreneurial mindset could change public education for the better–and other cities are taking notice.

Confronting a broken system

Prior to 2005, the New Orleans school system was a study in failure–one of the worst performers in the nation. A 2014 report from the New Orleans Times-Picayune notes that the city’s public schools ranked 67th out of 68 districts in Louisiana; about 2/3 of those schools were rated as “failing”; and student outcomes were widely recognized as abysmal.

The destruction and flooding wrought by the August 2005 landfall of Hurricane Katrina left the school system in a difficult position. Many of the city’s school facilities were damaged or destroyed, and countless families were displaced by flooding and other challenges.

When it came time to reconstitute the public education system in New Orleans, local and state leaders opted for a new tack. The way forward was to be found in charter schools–publicly funded schools operated by independent non-profit or for-profit organizations, with the autonomy to craft customized curricula, staffing and teaching standards. Today, charter schools are taking responsibility for the education of more than 90% of New Orleans students in the public school system.

In a recent Washington Monthly piece, “How New Orleans Made Charter Schools Work,” David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute offers a before and after comparison of the results:

*Before Katrina, most public schools were terrible. In 2005 the city ranked sixty-seventh out of sixty-eight districts in Louisiana, itself a low performer compared to other states. Last year, New Orleans was forty-first out of sixty-nine school districts in Louisiana.

*Before Katrina, some 62 percent of students attended schools rated “failing” by the state. Though the standard for failure has been raised, only 7 percent of students attend “failing” schools today.

*Before Katrina, only 35 percent of students scored at grade level or above on state standardized tests. Last year 62 percent did.

*Before Katrina, almost half of New Orleans students dropped out, and less than one in five went on to college. Last year, 73 percent graduated from high school in four years, two points below the state average, and 59 percent of graduates entered college, equaling the state average.

Supporters of the charter school movement point to results like those as evidence of the promise to be found in approaching public education in new ways.

The Network Effect

The New Orleans charter school revolution also illustrates clearly how a more entrepreneurial approach to public policy problems can get results by bringing new players to the table.

In preparing the “Innovation That Matters,” researchers found that successful civic ecosystems build “an open, fluid and dynamic network” that links different groups and players together to foster new ideas and creative collaboration.

Such a network developed in post-Katrina New Orleans to address the city’s schooling challenges, as Osborne shows in his Washington Monthly article. That network included:

*Elected state leaders from both parties at the federal, state and local levels;

*New Orleans business leaders like Leslie Jacobs and Paul Pastorek, who played major roles in pushing for and implementing the reforms;

*Non-profits like the teaching and advocacy organization Teach for America;

*Education technology providers;

*Parents and families who wanted more say in the direction of their children’s educations, and other key players.

Moreover, a dynamic start-up community is growing up in New Orleans to build upon the improvements of the last few years. For example, 4.0 Schools, a non-profit incubator dedicated to bringing together teachers, entrepreneurs and other key players to develop new education solutions, is based in the Crescent City.

4.0 Schools works with educators to help them to use business principles like prototyping and testing to develop education programs that are sustainable and get results for students. It’s an approach that traditional school systems may hesitate to embrace–but if that approach it shows success in New Orleans, it could open the door for the spread of new ideas.

Charter schools aren’t a panacea, but they show promise as a platform for reform and innovation in a field that has long been resistant to change. As school reform supporter Jonathan Chait points out in New York Magazine, that promise is a work in progress, and reformers should continue striving to build upon that progress.

“What [charters schools] have demonstrated is the ability to develop the academic potential of the most underprivileged children, defying the fatalism of the right and the left,” Chait writes. “They have not proven the ability to scale up their successes to every single urban school district in America for the simple reason that it is impossible to prove something that has not yet happened. The debate at this point lies between those who want to build on the movement’s demonstrable progress and those determined to deny, in the face of mounting evidence, that it is even possible.”

Charter schools will likely remain the focus of intense debate, as there are entrenched interests in the public schooling monopoly determined to forestall any sort of constructive competition. But competition is exactly what’s needed to drive innovation and improved performance in the educational system–and charter schools continue to show promise as a way to reach those goals.