I had the opportunity this month to visit New Orleans, with leaders of Local Education Funds from across the country, to reflect on the tremendous transformation that has occurred over the 10 years that have passed since Hurricane Katrina decimated the city and its perilously low-performing public school system.
I feel particularly connected to the story of New Orleans, as I worked as the assistant principal of KIPP New Orleans West (NOW), a charter school in Houston that served students who had evacuated the city after the storm. A number of my friends and colleagues came to NOW from New Orleans, and many went back as part of the great influx of talent that returned to the city post-Katrina.
A lot has been written since the storm, particularly around the 10th anniversary this year, both praising and pushing back against the massive changes that have occurred in the city’s schools. In the end, whether New Orleans ends up as a model for the future of public education or an odd outlier remains to be seen and, like all things in education, the answer will never be black and white. After speaking with leaders in the community who both supported and opposed the reforms, there are a few takeaways worth considering:
The reforms have had some positive impact, but the system is still evolving: All but one person we spoke with said that the city’s schools were better and academic achievement higher than they were before Katrina, and everyone agreed there were still significant areas that needed attention, particularly the provision of special education in the radically decentralized system. Given the haste in which the system was built, and the uncertainty that surrounded that time, the fact there is a system that works pretty well is laudable, and the reform community appears genuinely committed to addressing the shortcomings.
It is equity to the extreme: Only after a Category 5 hurricane could a system fully like New Orleans exist, where, with the exception of a few selective enrollment schools, no parent--regardless of their political power--has the ability to guarantee access to a specific school to their children. The city’s unified enrollment system, called OneApp, launched only a few years ago, but seems to have increased clarity and trust in the enrollment process, and sounds like a model that could be adapted to be used in other cities as well (e.g. Jacksonville’s confusing and time-consuming school choice process).
Schools as the unit of change: The proliferation of charter schools gets all of the attention in New Orleans, but the real shift has been to hyper-local, school-level autonomy and responsibility. The central districts, the RSD and OPSB, serve a clear, support-level role to their schools; the real decision making--from staffing, to schedule, curriculum to budget--happens with school building leaders. This change, which is really a return to the way schooling existed for nearly a century, has been piloted elsewhere, including Boston, New York, and Denver, among others, and is something worthy of further exploration.
Tension remains over future of school governance: Currently, the Recovery School District and its appointed board operate the vast majority of charter schools in New Orleans, while the Orleans Parish School Board and its elected school board operate just a handful. Questions about where governance of public schools should finally rest remain front and center, particularly for frustrated grassroots leaders, who see the RSD as too remote to address concerns. Many reform leaders are open to discussions about returning to the OPSB, but harbor deep concerns about losing the autonomies that they feel have helped increase student achievement over the past decade. Even the schools most open to the switch back say they would require “concrete assurances” around funding, staffing, and operational autonomy, accountability and and school choice, before they could even consider such a move. This is an area to watch over the coming decade, as New Orleans tries to show whether it is possible for system-wide autonomy to exist over the long term with an elected school board.
Like the jazz that emanates from music clubs around the city, the story is still evolving and unfolding in New Orleans, and the ending is far from written. Yet the changes that have been made in a relatively short period of time, and the increases in student achievement, call for continued study, and exploration, by school districts and education advocates across the country, as everyone seeks to find systems that can work equitably for all kids.