Overall, New Orleans Charter Schools Improving Results

After Hurricane Katrina, it became incumbent upon the New Orleans Department of Education to "do something" — not only about the city's school infrastructure, but about their poor outcomes.

Schools in New Orleans were struggling before the storm; after the storm many schools were gone. The aftermath saw a proliferation of charter schools. In the Christian Science Monitor, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo summarizes the state of education in New Orleans:

Gone is a traditional central district office that assigns students to schools, hires and promotes teachers in negotiation with a union, and controls everything from budgets to textbooks. Instead, families here choose among charter schools citywide that – in exchange for their autonomy – have to meet certain benchmarks in order to have their charters renewed.

On the good side of the ledger, improvements have been made. Graduation rates and test scoring have increased. Charter schools are requiring good citizenship of their students, and a large majority of parents support this effort.

There is no doubt that there have been significant academic strides. Students qualifying for ACT college scholarships has increased from 6% to 27%. Supporters add that getting the government out of running schools is a good thing and gives state and national administrators the job of overseeing and advising.

Naysayers counter by expressing their concern that charter schools are battling public schools for the same financial support. They also contend that taking away localized school boards removes the historically important opportunity for parents, schools, and teachers to interact to decide what is best for their children. Local activist Karran Harper Royal believes, "creating an all-charter district takes away choice," she adds, "especially for parents who can't get children placed in schools near their homes or people who don't feel charter schools are responsive to their concerns."

Politicians and educators nationwide are anxious to see if the charter school prototype is going to be successful in the long term. Detroit, Washington D.C., Memphis, Kansas City, and Nashville — all of which have a long history of weak K-12 education outcomes — have instituted a number of charter schools to turn around their troubled school districts.

As other attempts to improve chronically bad schools have failed, a coalition of political and educational leaders has grown in some cities that is "willing to consider more dramatic approaches," such as a reliance on charter schools, says Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, a pro-charter education consulting group in Chapel Hill, N.C. New Orleans is part of the reason, because it's a place where these "wholesale changes … have been tried and have shown some promising results," he says.

Interestingly, Meredith Simons of the Atlantic reports that there is a student backlash in the charter schools based on grievances against what they see as oppressive disciplinary policies. Parents have accused the schools of being like "military bootcamps". Yet at the top charter schools in New Orleans, teachers insist that because of the high behavioral expectations, the students can then enjoy various fun activities and more extracurricular activities. They say the structure allows them to prepare their students for eventual college success.

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