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New Orleans Schools - Chaos Creates Opportunities
By David W. Kirkpatrick (June 22, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

        From time to time some critics of the public schools have suggested that the best thing that could happen would be to close down the system and start anew.   But however serious these proposals have been, or whatever their merits, in reality there has been no chance they could be realized.
         Until now.   We may be about to see at least one option of what a fresh start could mean.
         The place?  New Orleans.
         While most are probably aware of the devastation caused to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina last year, much less attention has been given by the national media to the impact on the city public school district.
         Prior to the Katrina, the district had some 60,000 students in 128 schools and, not least of all, about 4,000 teachers organized in the local union.  The district has often been referred to as possibly the worst in the nation but because of the usual reasons - the influence of local politics, the opposition of a large teachers union, etc. - little progress was made on improving the situation for students.
         Katrina changed all of that.
         Many of the schools, as well as entire neighborhoods,  were badly damaged or destroyed, students and staff have been scattered around the nation, the tax base for the city and district was largely wiped out, and the teacher union is reduced to political impotence, with about 300 members.  And to say members does not necessarily mean teachers who are presently  in  classrooms.  From the reform point of view this presents two advantages - the former status quo can not be revived and there aren't the usual roadblocks to meaningful reform. In fact, drastic educational change is not only possible in New Orleans but it is essential.
         With a debt of nearly $400 million and rebuilding schools predicted to cost as much as one billion dollars, the district faced an impossible burden.  As a result the state Department of Education took control of virtually all of New Orleans' 25 public schools, which have an enrollment of about 12,000 students.  Already, however, these 25 schools,  are not the same as before. Eighteen of them already are, or are about to be, charter schools.  In preparation for the coming school year, with an expected student enrollment, another 50 schools are anticipated to open with 40 of them to be charter schools.
         This, of course, is but a beginning.  Creating a viable alternative to what had existed cannot be done in one school year.  Nor need it be because there is no likelihood of all 60,000 former students returning to New Orleans in the immediate future, if at all.
         Two Chicago organizations with experience developing charter schools will be involved in this process. Indications are that they will make a strong effort to place the new charter schools in the hands of those who already have a positive track record.  At the same time, the operation of individual charter schools will be opened to a wide variety of possible groups - nonprofit organizations, universities, community centers, parents, teachers, other school districts and churches.
         The federal government has also chipped in with a $24 million grant to Louisiana to create new charter schools.
         While one news report said this will be "The nation's first charter-only school district," that's not quite correct.  Several states have charter school laws specifically authorizing charter districts, and there have been published reports of such districts being established in California, Florida and Georgia, although perhaps in districts not on the scale of that in New Orleans.  In addition, all of them were operating school districts that could look forward to converting a system rather than in essence creating one from scratch.
         It's too early to determine what success this alternative approach may have, or even what it means for it to be successful.  Certainly it won't be sufficient to eventually say it's better than the former school district.  That would set  a  very low standard.  Charter schools could be "better," a relative term, but still be abysmal on any reasonable measure.
         If, on the other hand, the new approach is successful, as many charter schools have been, the impact across the nation may be considerable.

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         "We've got a whole different set of conditions, and it's both a blessing and a curse...we want to build something better from the rubble...We're talking about building it all with public charter schools."  -- U.S. Senator Mary L. Landrieu, (D-LA), Tracy Dell'Angela, "New Orleans on track to open charter schools," The Baltimore Sun, June 18, 2006

        (The article is also the source of some of the above information)

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Copyright 2007 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

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