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New Orleans: Charter Schools' Ground Zero
By David W. Kirkpatrick (September 06, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
         Given the unrelenting opposition to meaningful reforms by the public school establishment, especially the teachers' unions, it has been suggested that the only way to institute serious change would be to start over.  That has been an impossible dream.  Until now.
 
         Two years ago Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of New Orleans and its school district which at that time had 65,000 students in 128 schools, including four charter schools.   The Louisiana department of education took control of 112 of the schools.  The existing teacher union contract was abolished and in December 2005 the school board fired the entire school staff.  This virtually dismantled the local teachers union which collapsed from 6,000 members to only 400.
 
         What emerged was a three-part structure. Five traditional schools are still managed by the Orleans Parish School Board (parish in Louisiana is a political unit not a religious one). The newly created Recovery School District (RSD) has 34 schools, up from last year's 22, and 13,400 students, about 4,000 of whom are new as families return to the city.  Finally, under the Parish School Board, 40 semi-autonomous charter schools enroll about 20,000 students. Pre-Katrina enrollment was 65,000,
 
         The RSD is now headed by Paul Vallas, recent leader of the Philadelphia and Chicago school districts.  He has proven himself to be a change agent who is willing to try multiple approaches and not only consider but implement changes at variance with conventional approaches.
 
         The most significant feature is the existence of the charter schools, which can be opened by nonprofit groups, churches, universities, community centers, parents, groups of teachers and school districts.  One RSD school, Gentilly Terrace Elementary might be termed a hybrid.  It is managed through a two-year agreement with the University of New Orleans which is responsible for curriculum decisions and the hiring of teachers, the RSD will handle most administrative matters.  Thus it has some characteristics of charter schools while also partially under district control.
 
         Charter school enrollment in New Orleans is about 60% of the total which is the highest percentage in the nation.  Dayton, Ohio is second at 30% while the District of Columbia is close behind at 25%.
 
         Perhaps the most important aspect of the developments in New Orleans is something that is absent rather than something that is present.  That is the essentially total lack of influence by the teachers union, a circumstance for which they share some of the blame. Prior to Katrina, the New Orleans school district was considered one of the worst in the nation.  Clearly the union does not bear the major blame for that.  But neither did it lead a charge for reforms to better serve the students in the system. Although 4,700 union teachers and 2,000 other union members lost their jobs, personal tragedies by any measure, they've received little sympathy.  A large proportion of them, like much of New Orleans pre-Katrina population, now live elsewhere.
 
         The remnant 500-member union is trying to recoup some of its losses but it faces a dilemma largely of its own making.   The RSD has about 1100 teachers this year, many of whom are from outside New Orleans.  The RSD has no teacher contract so there is little motivation for these teachers to join the union.
 
         Consequently the union is looking at the charter schools where most of the teachers now work.  But these are largely autonomous so no single collective bargaining contact is possible.  And, where the chickens are coming home to roost, the union, as is true across the nation, has opposed the creation of charter schools.  Thus it is faced with daunting task of persuading charter teachers to join a union that opposed the establishment of their jobs.
 
         Defenders of the former system are quick to criticize. Sarah Usdin, head of New School for New Orleans has replied, "There seems to be incredible amnesia in this community about what we had before."
 
         It's safe to say not many want that system revived. That's not likely, to say the least.
 
         As John Ayers, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, has said, "This is the greenfield site that you never get in public education."
 
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         "Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Orleans Parish was ranked among the lowest-performing urban school districts in the nation."   "With the recent surge in standardized test scores among charter school students, local residents are confident charter schools will raise the bar of academic excellence in the city.  Sherrel Wheeler Stewart and Michelle J. Nealy.   "Reopened MLK Charter School a Guidepost for New Orleans' Post-Katrina Education Model," Blackamericaweb.com, August 28, 2007

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Copyright 2007 David W. Kirkpatrick
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Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
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