Charting New Orleans' charter school experiment

Aug 13, 2015

It's been 10-years since Hurricane Katrina and the flood-of-floods struck New Orleans. In the following decade, the city has transformed it public schools, housing, and business community. Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio traveled to the city to explore what these vast changes mean for New Orleans and the country. 

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans threw out its failing public schools and started over. It’s become the most sweeping experiment in America in the use of charter schools, where essentially private organizations figure out how they’ll use money that comes in from largely government sources. In part one of this series, we heard student and teacher experiences. Today, some numbers on success and failure.

“New Orleans sucks you in," Dorn says. " I don’t want to leave and I’ll be here in the long run because I love the community.”

Twenty-six-year-old Dorn is from New York’s Long Island and has a bachelors degree in philosophy and history. A few years ago, he enrolled in Teach for America, a non-profit that takes people looking for a worthwhile post-college assignment and puts them through a teacher’s boot camp before finding them work. Work it is — for Mr. Dorn, up at 5:30 am, in at 7:30 am.Phil Dorn, one of the teachers who came to New Orleans to join the charter experiment, was at his school getting ready for the coming year, weeks before the kids will arrive.

“I would stay probably until eight o'clock and then I’d go home and do work until 11," says Dorn. 

He works at Encore Academy, a pre-K through middle school charter that focuses on the arts. The school is open to any student in the city who applies and wins the district's quasi-lottery system. Encore, therefore, has many students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Dorn is a deeply reflective guy, who wrestles with coming from such a distance — that is, being a white guy from New York.

“Most of the teachers that go into TFA, they don’t look like the students that they are serving," he says. "There isn’t this push for teachers to really understand the community that they are working in. And its difficult, when you are working from six a.m. to 11 p.m., you don’t really have time to engage with the community in the way that you would.” 

He means the larger community, beyond the students, colleagues, parents and other stakeholders of the school itself. Having finished his TFA program and now entering his third year, he hopes to have more time to interact. Dorn is taking himself out of the classroom and will serve as Encore's new director of middle school teachers.

Phil Dorn describes what it was like when he first started in Teach for America:

This school opened just three years ago and never experienced the conversion from regular public to charter. But regarding the performance of schools that did go through that transition, there is an ocean of disagreement.

“There is very little to cheer about, academic failure, operational failure," says Raynard Sanders, education equity advocate and former principal in the pre-storm public system. "The whole intent of this reform obviously was not academic achievement because they have not done that. They have a different metric of success," Sanders says. "I think the metric for them is privatization.” 

Students in the New Orleans Recovery School District — schools ordered to become charters and overseen by the state — averaged 16.6 on the ACT college entrance exam, a measure that gets a lot of attention in New Orleans, well under the national average score of 21.

But, you can also grade on improvement. Tulane Economics professor Douglas Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans looked at student data in New Orleans before and after Katrina. New Orleans, he says, improved compared to other parts of Louisiana hit by the storm.

“Basically all the schools seem to have gotten better," Harris says. "The schools that were higher performing got better, the schools that were lower performing got better,” based mainly on test scores, but also graduation rates and college entry.

He notes the schools forced to convert to into charters had really low marks in the pre-storm years.

"New Orleans was so low performing to begin with," says Harris, "it was the second lowest performing district in the the second lowest performing state."

But critics say not-as-bad isn't the same as success. Former principal Sanders, who's working on a documentary about the schools called A Perfect Storm, says the switch to charters was less about lifting up students and more about lifting up business interests.

“When someone comes talking to you about school reform, watch the money," Sanders says.

And about that price tag: with no union pay scales and less experienced teachers in the mix, one might think the charter school model would be a money-saver. Not in New Orleans says Tulane's Professor Harris.

“It’s not a cheap model," Harris says. "If you are going to have people working long hours, you still have to pay people, you have to pay them reasonably well, especially if you are going to ask that much more of them." 

Per pupil spending surged from mainly public, but also philanthropic, sources.

“It was an investment at every level and districts shouldn’t take away that this is going to save them money or that they can do this on the cheap," says Harris. 

This will be of interest to other public school districts from Atlanta to Baltimore and beyond that are looking at the post-Katrina charters as a guide.