Something significant happened with the closing of the 2013-2014 school year in New Orleans. The Orleans Parish School Board closed its remaining traditional public schools, for good. That means beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, all public schools operating in the city of New Orleans will be public charter schools. In scope, the change is not as grand as it initially sounds. There were only a handful of traditional public schools remaining in operation in New Orleans. Over 90% of children in New Orleans already attended charter schools, making public schooling in New Orleans the largest urban education reform experiment in the nation. But there is something incredibly significant about the fact that there will be no traditional public schools in a major American city next year. Charter schools had their beginnings in 1991 with the passage of the nation’s first charter school law in Minnesota, and the subsequent opening of the first charter schools in 1992. But I don’t believe school reformers in Minnesota or the father of the charter school concept, Ray Budde, imagined that 13 years after the passage of Minnesota’s law, there would be a major American city where all public schools would be charter schools. Undoubtedly, the transformation of public schooling in New Orleans was sped along by the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina which destroyed the vast majority of the city’s schools. But even prior to Katrina, the New Orleans Public Schools were in complete disarray; by many accounts the city’s school system was academically, financially, and ethically bankrupt. The state had already been busy devising plans for a take-over of the city’s failing schools. In many ways, Katrina just provided the opportunity for massive reform. And that large-scale education reform begun in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and continued even to today has fundamentally transformed public schooling in New Orleans.
Problems do remain, however. Much work remains to be done in New Orleans. Many kinks in the system have yet to be worked out. But the numbers are clear; current academic performance for students attending public schools in New Orleans has far exceeded performance levels for the city’s public school students prior to Hurricane Katrina. And according to a recent report by the Times Picayune, 45% of New Orleans voters say the schools are improving. I don’t remember seeing such a large percentage of New Orleanians who believed schools were moving in the right direction.
Choice is very clearly now a central tenet of public education in New Orleans. Parents have many more public school options than they have ever had before. What must continue now is a redoubled effort to ensure that the options available to parents are in fact high quality charter school options. Charter authorizers in New Orleans must hold their schools accountable for academic performance. Performance accountability is central to the charter school concept. That means, first, maintaining the highest standards for granting charters to applicants. Second, schools that fail to perform at or above the agreed upon levels of academic performance must be improved immediately or closed down, with no exceptions. We cannot allow charter schools to become the traditional public schools of pre-Katrina New Orleans; schools that failed generations of New Orleans families with no accountability. Finally, that means giving high performing charter schools and charter networks in the city the opportunity to expand, and recruiting the highest performing charter operators from around the country to New Orleans.
Efforts to ensure that parents’ school choices are in fact high quality choices are already underway. There are many individuals and groups in the city that are engaged in that work. One of those groups has been New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO). NSNO has invested heavily in innovation in the New Orleans charter school sector and the expansion of charter school operators that have proven to be effective. That kind of work must continue with even greater intensity. New Orleans has the unique opportunity to be not just a grand experiment in urban education reform, but to become the model for large-scale urban education reform in America. The fate of New Orleans and its children are dependent on state and educational leaders’ resolve and commitment to get charter schooling right in New Orleans.