Much of the media interest in the first anniversary of the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina in August fixated on the negative. Sometimes, however, hurricanes have silver linings: when Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans’s public school system it gave the city’s educational landscape a much-needed clean slate.
According a New York Times report, New Orleans public schools were “among the most abysmal in the nation before the storm”. In the 2004 Louisiana General Exit Exams (GEE) for high school students, 96 per cent of New Orleans public school students scored below “basic” in English and 94 per cent scored below “basic” in maths. The public school district was corrupt and debt-ridden.
Now New Orleans is at the centre of a different storm, one that education pundits around the world will be watching carefully. Hurricane Katrina has indelibly changed schooling in New Orleans by giving it the opportunity to rebuild, almost from scratch.
And there have been big changes in the Big Easy. The old centralised public school system has been all but scrapped and the large majority of students now attend either charter schools or private schools. Before Katrina, there were 123 traditional public schools. Post-Katrina, in the most recent school year, there were only seven traditional public schools, even though more than half of the city’s students had returned.
“Overnight, New Orleans, with nearly 70 per cent of public school students in schools of choice has become one of the most chartered cities in America”, write Kathryn G. Newmark and Veronique de Rugy in a recent article for the journal Education Next. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are independently operated. They have budgetary and educational autonomy and are free to hire and fire staff but are accountable to state standards.
More public schools are set to open in the current school year but they will do so in a decidedly different environment. There are no assigned schools, meaning that any student can register for any public or charter school and they are enrolled on a first-come first-served basis or by lottery. Public schools will have to compete with the stronger and more adept charter schools for students and funding.
Not everyone is pleased that New Orleans is becoming a national model on choice, of course. The United Federation of New Orleans Teachers wants to return to a centralised system, but teachers unions have less power in the new order. Not only has union membership fallen from 4,700 to 300 since 2003, the traditional object of their influence, the once omnipotent school district central office, has shrunk from 1,000 staff to 57.
There is also a long-running debate on the educational merits of charter schools versus traditional public schools. A recent study by the US National Centre for Education Statistics (NCES) found that test scores of charter school students are no better and sometimes worse than traditional public school students. But the findings are problematic in the way that many such studies are. The NCES study looks at test scores from a single point in time, and by its own admission, does not adequately control factors that may have distorted the findings, such as the possibility that charter school students begin with lower test scores.
Any study worthy of consideration must compare students drawn from similar populations, and ideally, evaluate gains in learning over time. These studies have been more favourable to charters. For example, research by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research found that charter schools in 11 states performed better than nearby, comparable public schools.
In research for the Goldwater Institute, analysis of the test scores of 60,000 Arizona students found that charter students enter school with lower test scores than public school students and show greater achievement growth. There is also highly sophisticated research from Harvard University showing that competition from charter schools improves public schools.
Additionally and importantly, research findings on the quality of charter schools vary significantly with the quality of charter laws. Some US states hold charters to high standards, closing or sanctioning those that fail, while others do not. The closure of bad schools shows that the policy is working.
Many see charters as the brightest hope for school choice because they offer a middle ground between unpredictable market-style reforms and the current public school system intransigence. They are tethered to common standards but have greater scope to meet and exceed them.
There is no doubt that charter schools have given great opportunities to children across America. For example, last year, the highly successful KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools started a charter school in Houston to serve 400 refugees of Hurricane Katrina. These students improved by an average of two grade levels in reading and maths while at the school. The school’s principal and many of its teachers will be moving to one of five new KIPP charter schools planned for New Orleans.
The situation of Australian students is nowhere near as dire as those in New Orleans but their education is no less important. They deserve charter schools like KIPP and the benefits they offer just as much. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a natural disaster to get them.