Argument: Katrina allowed New Orleans to restart with charter schools

Issue Report: Charter schools


Becky Bohrer. “After Katrina, rise of New Orleans charter schools being watched, weighed”. Times Picayune. October 19, 2006 – Virtually no one disputes New Orleans’ public school system was in disarray long before Katrina.
For years, fourth- and eighth-graders were at the bottom in state math and reading scores, and high school students also rated poorly.

There were other problems too: The local school district was in debt, and many of its buildings were in shoddy shape at best, leaky or worn down after years of neglect.

As such, in July 2004, a year before the hurricane, the state took over five schools it deemed “academically unacceptable” failures by state accountability standards for four straight years, a spokeswoman for the state-run school district said. After Katrina, and intervention by lawmakers, responsibility for all but 17 schools fell to the state.

“I say in many ways, ‘Thank you, Katrina,'” said Phyllis Landrieu, who was elected to the Orleans Parish School Board less than a year before the hurricane. “Immediately, all those problems were eliminated, to some extent, and we had an opportunity to start over.”

While some education leaders, eager for reform, saw Katrina as a blessing in disguise, union leaders like LaCour saw an excuse to begin replacing traditional public schools with the charters he contends were designed to be experimental.

Jen O’Neill. “Charter Schools Remedy Education Woes in New Orleans”. May 20, 2008 – Before Hurricane Katrina, over two-thirds of students in New Orleans were failing to meet state standards, and corruption was rampant within the administration. Thus, the storm’s aftermath was seen as an opportunity for schools to start over.

Susan Saulny. “U.S. Gives Charter Schools a Big Push in New Orleans”. New York Times. June 13, 2006 – [Education Secretary Margaret Spellings] spoke at a school in rural, flood-ruined Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans along the Mississippi River, where only three of nine public schools survived.

Given similar widespread devastation across the state after Hurricane Katrina and then Hurricane Rita, she said, charter schools are the best way to jump-start the state’s education recovery. Her comments echoed the Bush administration’s support for such schools across the nation.

The city’s public school system was already in chaos and considered among the most abysmal in the nation before the storm. After Hurricane Katrina, it suffered a near total collapse and has not even begun to bounce back, though the state has taken control of most of New Orleans’s schools.

“Just the fact that the charter schools are the ones that are open is testament to their ability to cut through red tape and be responsive to families where and when they need them,” Ms. Spellings said in an interview.

Michael Kunzelman. “In Post-Katrina New Orleans, Educators, Students Embrace Charter Schools”. Associated Press – Education officials said Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, created an opportunity for the flagging public school system to right itself, with charter schools as a centerpiece. Advocates preach patience. It will take time, they say, for the experiment to bear fruit.

Jennifer Buckingham. “A new order for New Orleans”. Online Opinion. November 9, 2006 – 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.