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Checking in on charters

New Orleans’ post-Katrina education rescue plan shows benefits of charters


A 2020 graduate from the New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School Associated Press/Photo by Gerald Herbert (file)

Checking in on charters

When families returned to New Orleans after the destruction of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, they enrolled their students in a vastly different school system. Louisiana had seized control of the floundering district and transformed it into a collection of charter schools.

New research confirms that the change benefited students. And although New Orleans’ reforms would be difficult for other districts to copy, the pandemic has sparked a growth in charter school enrollment that could be good for students in the long-term.

Pre-Katrina, New Orleans’ school district trailed much of the country in academic achievement and college success. A high school valedictorian failed the graduate exit exam five times. The storm’s destruction of homes and schools made the problem worse, forcing students out of class. By the time students trickled back to New Orleans and reentered schools after Katrina, educators estimated they were on average more than two years below grade level, according to researcher Paul Hill at the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

New Orleans’ new charter-based system allowed students to apply to any school in the city and gave charter operators freedom to hire and fire teachers. Students’ test scores quickly improved, but onlookers questioned how much of the improvement was due to the new model rather than an influx of wealthier students with better educational backgrounds.

But a study updated in May confirms the new system did help students. Economists and researchers Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen separated new students from those who stayed in or returned to New Orleans and controlled for other factors such as poverty rates and improved quality of life. They estimated that the charter school reforms increased high school graduations by 9-13 percentage points and college attendance by 7-11 percentage points. College graduation among district students, previously about 10 percent, crept up by 2-3 percentage points.

While no other school districts have followed New Orleans’ lead, pandemic crisis schooling gave charters a boost nationwide. Charter enrollment grew from 3.5 million before COVID-19 to 4.1 million in the fall of 2020, according to consulting firm Tyton Partners.

Harris and Larsen pointed out that Louisiana’s aggressive efforts to close and replace low-performing charters, plus an influx of ambitious young teachers eager to help New Orleans, contributed to students’ better outcomes and would be difficult to imitate elsewhere. So students switching to charter schools during COVID-19 may not see improvements as large as those in New Orleans.

But research suggests high quality charter schools still improve student outcomes. One analysis found Boston charter school students scored an average of 51 points higher on the math SAT than similar students outside charters. And an April survey by EdChoice found 90 percent of charter school parents were very or somewhat satisfied with their children’s school, compared to 82 percent of traditional public school parents.

Advocates celebrated last week’s 30-year anniversary of the first charter school authorization law in the United States, pointing to encouraging research. “Improving the quality of K-12 learning through chartering is the foundation for an action plan to reduce inequality and foster equal opportunity,” Charter advocate Bruno Manno wrote for The Hill. “This is worth remembering, reaffirming and celebrating 30 years later.”

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