The NY Times columnist David Leonhardt reflects anew on the school transformation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After a recent visit to New Orleans, Leonhardt extols a New Orleans miracle. Many knowledgeable people have disagreed. Perhaps Leonhardt’s new column is a case of confirmation bias or maybe just rose colored glasses.
Leonhardt concludes: “(T)he academic progress has been remarkable. Performance on every kind of standardized test has surged… People here point to two main forces driving the progress: Autonomy and accountability. In other school districts, teachers and principals are subject to a thicket of rules, imposed by a central bureaucracy. In New Orleans, schools have far more control. They decide which extracurriculars to offer and what food to serve. Principals choose their teachers—and can let go of weak ones. Teachers, working together, often choose their curriculum.” “The charters here educate almost all public-school students, so they can’t cherry pick.”
Leonhardt is flat-out wrong on that last point. What is different about New Orleans’ charter schools is the Louisiana law passed right after Hurricane Katrina, a law allowing charter schools explicitly to select their students. Charter schools in New Orleans can use admission tests and other admissions screens that cannot be used by the charter schools in any other state. I remember being shocked by the formation of selective charter schools when I visited New Orleans myself in the summer of 2006. The Rev. Torin Sanders, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, told me: “Pre-Katrina, New Orleans already had a dual system for privileged and poor children. We used to call the selective schools our magnet program. Then we used the term ‘city-wide access.’ These schools were created for children of promise. After the hurricane, legislators said Act 35 created the charters to demonstrate innovative ideas for at-risk students, but the highest performing schools… went charter first. The law was used to make these privileged schools unencumbered and autonomous.”
For example, after the hurricane, New Orleans added a selective charter high school by seizing the storied Uptown Neighborhood’s comprehensive, public Alcee Fortier High School and turning it into a charter high school with priority admission for the children of faculty at Tulane and other local universities. Tulane granted $1.5 million to clean and transform the old neighborhood high school into its model charter. Although Fortier’s former neighborhood students were allowed to apply to the new charter Lusher High School through an admissions test, the test was waived for children of professional staff at Tulane, Loyola, Xavier and Dillard Universities.
A decade after the New Orleans’ schools takeover, Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education explored the implications of the Louisiana law that permits selective charter schools in New Orleans: “Louisiana’s charter law explicitly allows some schools to engage in selective enrollment practices that resemble those of private schools—for example, requiring minimum grade point averages and standardized test scores, as well as other criteria, for admission.”
The Stanford report continues: “It is clear that the organization of schools in New Orleans is highly stratified: The school tiers sort students by race, income, and special education status, with the most advantaged students at the top and the least advantaged at the bottom. Only the top two sub-tiers of schools within Tier 1 have any appreciable number of white and Asian students and any noticeable number of students who are non-poor… Because schools at the top of the hierarchy largely choose their student body, few students actually have the option to attend these schools, while those schools at the bottom are assigned students who are not chosen elsewhere or who are pushed out of schools further up the hierarchy… This stratification occurs as a function of both admissions patterns and transfer/exclusion patterns. The top schools not only have selective enrollment criteria, they are also permitted to ask students who do not maintain a certain grade point average to leave. Similarly, they are allowed to determine which and how many special needs students they admit, often turning parents away because they do not, for example, serve students with cognitive or physical disabilities that require significant accommodations. The students identified as ‘special education’ in the highest performing schools are generally designated as ‘gifted’ or ‘talented,’ and rarely include the kinds of disabilities found in lower tier schools. When schools at the top of the hierarchy, disenroll students whose GPAs have slipped, or turn away children with special needs, these children end up attending schools further down on the hierarchy.”
Not only is Leonhardt’s column based on a factual error when he highlights what he imagines to be “open admissions” in New Orleans’ charter schools, but there is also so much that he chooses to ignore. In a column last year for the Brookings Institution, Andre Perry describes the ideologically driven seizure of the city’s schools and details some of the collateral damage: “Sure, rebuilding school buildings and improving systems are worthy goals after any disaster. But Hurricane Katrina blew a window of opportunity wide open for New Orleans reformers to ram through a mostly predetermined agenda of disempowering the New Orleans Public School Board. In the weeks after the storm, the Louisiana legislature changed its previous definition of an academically failing school to be able to take control of the vast majority of schools in the city.”
Then the Recovery School District fired the entire staff of the public school district, ignoring tenure laws and eliminating the teachers union. Perry continues: “Of the more than 7,000 employees who were terminated from New Orleans schools in the months after Katrina… approximately 4,300 were teachers, 71 percent of whom were black, and 78 percent of whom were women. Not only did this negatively impact the black middle class of the entire city, it emasculated the black community as a whole, which still feels the sting of that decision today.” In 2015, Teach for America bragged about its “growing footprint” in New Orleans: “Today, TFA corps members and alumni comprise a full 20 percent of the New Orleans teaching force, and over 50 alumni serve as leaders at the school or school systems level.”
Andre Perry’s hindsight demonstrates his own personal learning from the charter experiment: Perry served for several years as the CEO of the New Beginnings charter schools in New Orleans. Writing for the Hechinger Report, Katy Reckdahl quotes Perry describing the way he had to exaggerate expectations as he proposed the formation of a new charter school: “Perry, then CEO of the New Beginnings Schools Foundation submitted an application for Gentilly Terrace Elementary predicting that 100 percent of the school’s fourth and eighth graders would reach proficiency or close to it… ‘If I had submitted more realistic numbers, the state would have never accepted it… There is a general belief that you have to shoot for the stars or you’ll be shortchanging a possibility of miraculous growth.'”
In this week’s NY Times piece, David Leonhardt alleges that, “(A)cademic progress has been remarkable. Performance on every kind of standardized test has surged.”
That conclusion certainly contradicts reports last November about a collapse of state standardized test scores. For The Lens, Marta Jewson reported: “State rankings for most New Orleans schools are on a three-year slide, with 65 percent of the schools dropping from 2014 to 2017. The drop in school performance scores from 2016 to 2017 caused hand-wringing among the city’s education leaders, but The Lens’ analysis of state data shows it’s just part of a worrisome trend… Charter networks Kipp New Orleans Schools, New Beginnings Schools Foundation, ReNEW Schools and Algiers Charters operate a combined 23 schools. Only one of them improved its school performance score from 2016 to 2017… The three-year drop appears to confirm education leaders’ fears about what would happen when tests aligned with tougher standards were introduced in 2015… Some school leaders say those tougher standards have caught up with the city’s schools….”
Yes, scores tend to drop when new tests and new standards are introduced. But the fact remains that Leonhardt’s boast about remarkable progress seems to contradict a three year slide in scores.
In the fall of 2006, writing for the Center for Community Change, Leigh Dingerson described the seizure of New Orleans’s public schools: “Over the past twelve months, buoyed by the support of the federal government, a network of conservative anti-government activists have moved with singular intensity to patch together a new vision for K-12 education that they hope will become a national model. It is a vision that disdains the public sector and those who work within it. It is a vision based on competition and economic markets. It is a vision of private hands spending public funds. Most disturbing, it is a vision that casts families and students as ‘customers,’ who shop for schools in isolation from—and even in competition with—their neighbors. It is a vision that, like the game of musical chairs, requires someone to be left without a seat.”
Several years after the hurricane and the New Orleans school takeover, in perhaps the most stunning moment I have ever experienced at a public meeting, a well-known keynoter echoed then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—calling Hurricane Katrina a remarkable opportunity for New Orleans to redesign its schools. A woman in the audience leapt to her feet and loudly contradicted his conclusion by telling the truth of her own experience as a parent: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy, all while we were out of town.”