Post-Katrina Reforms Produce Achievement Gains and Conflict in New Orleans Schools



Janice B. Riddell
, (203) 912-8675,, Education Next
Jed Horne
, (504) 864-3156

CAMBRIDGE, MA – A new report on New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina finds the school system substantially changed from its condition five years ago.  Well over half of the city’s 88 public schools are now charter schools that are independently operated but publicly authorized, funded, and evaluated.  Proportionally more public school students — 71% — are in charter schools in New Orleans than in any other U.S. city.  The percentage of students attending a low-performing school has fallen by half, from 67 percent to 34 percent.

In “New Schools in New Orleans,” to be published in the Spring 2011 issue of Education Next and available now at, author Jed Horne observes that before Katrina, the system was bankrupt and its management so corrupted that the FBI saw fit to set up a satellite branch within the school board’s central office.  Student performance was at or near the bottom nationally.  The hurricane was the coup de grace.  Some 110 of 127 schoolhouses were destroyed, a catastrophe that also proved to be an opportunity for renewal.

Within weeks of Hurricane Katrina, officials turned the city’s schools over to the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) and gave the RSD five years to turn them around.  The RSD had been established in 2003 to manage “recovery” from decades of academic failure but had taken over only five schools before Katrina.  After the storm, the RSD took control of an additional 63 public schools and immediately began seeking charter organizations to take charge of as many as possible.  The elected Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) retained authority over 16 schools considered still viable after the storm;  12 of these hastily sought and achieved charter status.  The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) retained oversight of two of the city’s charter schools.

New Orleans’s polycentric administrative structure – with schools run by the state and the school board as well as by autonomous charter organizations – has fostered competition and performance gains.  Furthering these developments, an infrastructure of support organizations has sprung up, key among them firms that align curriculum with toughened state standards and then develop metrics for continuously monitoring individual student achievement.  Overarching local nonprofits such as New Schools for New Orleans and Teach NOLA have coordinated and supercharged the reform initiatives, and national organizations such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project have expanded their presence in New Orleans.

Recently, New Orleans secured $28.5 million in federal “i3” funds for educational innovation.  The award will go to the RSD and to New Schools for New Orleans primarily to lubricate the takeover and reorganization of failing schools.

December 2010 was a pivotal moment in the course of school restructuring, with a vote by BESE to renew the RSD’s authority over its portfolio of New Orleans schools.  The decision, recommended by state education Superintendent Paul Pastorek, generated lively debate in the city, with some groups contending that diminished OPSB means school control is less local or less democratic.  That view is countered by the author’s observation that local control is, in fact, far greater now that the city’s seven-member school board has been augmented by a growing cohort of charter school board members numbering in the hundreds.  A fall 2010 poll by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives found that 60 percent of New Orleans residents opposed returning the schools to the OPSB.

About the Author
Jed Horne educated two sons in Orleans Parish public schools.  He is the author of Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his part in hurricane coverage by The Times-Picayune, the New Orleans daily.

About Education Next
Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform.  Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy of Governance, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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