New Orleans' Grand Experiment: Report Card on Charter Schools

New Orleans’ students are scoring better on standardized tests, thanks in no small part to the large number of charter schools operating in the city post-Katrina. Not only have the students in the charter schools benefited, it would appear that the system in general is improving as more traditional schools respond to the competition.

Orleans Parish LEAP scores show charter schools lead the way

New Orleans’ public school system was utterly devastated by an unnatural disaster known as the Orleans Parish School Board, a cauldron of corruption, cronyism and thievery that would have made Jean Lafitte blush. Hurricane Katrina provided the coup de grace in 2005.

After Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board was swept aside, its functions almost totally replaced by the State-run Recovery School District (which had begun the takeover before the storm). The change resulted in a large number of charter schools, some operating under the aegis of the RSD. Charter schools came not by choice, but by necessity. Without the charter schools acting autonomously, the comeback of the public schools would have lagged by at least a year.

[RSD Superintendent Paul] Vallas’ district includes 33 traditional and 33 charter schools. Overall, both types of schools saw some growth, although the charters still outperformed the noncharters, echoing last year’s scores. The directly run RSD schools, however, must accept students enrolling throughout the year, while charters can cap their enrollment, giving them a more stable student population.

Citywide, the percentage of students passing the high-stakes LEAP exam grew in both the fourth and eighth grades.

Sixty percent of fourth-graders passed the test this year, compared with 55 percent last year. In eighth-grade, 48 percent of students passed, compared with 43 percent last school year. The passage rate on the Graduate Exit Exam, or GEE, also improved, with students performing particularly well in math.

To hear the Times-Picayune tell it, you’d almost think the success of charter schools in New Orleans is a statistical aberration:

In many cases, comparing schools becomes difficult, as with the city’s selective-admission schools. The majority of charter schools should accept all students, regardless of academic ability, yet they still have performance advantages over Recovery District-operated schools. Some charters tend to attract a more involved class of parents, who shop more aggressively for schools; they can cap their enrollments, unlike the Recovery District; and, on average, they serve fewer special-needs students than the noncharters. …

The city’s public schools have operated in a unique context post-Katrina. Students who were already years behind in school fell further behind in the chaos after the flood. Further, Katrina effectively destroyed not only dozens of school buildings; it also leveled the teachers union and the Orleans Parish School Board, figuratively speaking, giving Vallas and his boss, State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, unchecked authority to institute their changes. At the same time, Vallas and some of the charter operators have benefited from unparalleled levels of resources and national attention for the city — money and attention that will diminish in the coming years. [emphasis added]

The schools changed for the better without the involvement of the teachers’ union? C’est impossible!

This issue of School Choice should be a big winner for Republicans looking for a way to broaden the appeal of the Party without becoming de facto Democrats in the process.