New Orleans’ Schools at the Top of the Class

Yes, it’s true – New Orleans has become the model for school reform.
Joseph Daniel Fiedler illustration

If someone would’ve prophesied a decade ago that New Orleans would one day provide the model that could save failing urban schools across the nation, no one would have believed it. Yet in less than a decade, policy scholars are beginning to predict just that. More and more states are watching and copying what David Osborne, international government consultant and coauthor of Reinventing Government, calls “The New Orleans Model.”

In the late 1990s, Osborne participated in a commission that found that the majority of students attending the nation’s largest school systems couldn’t perform at even “basic” levels of academic skills. The commission recommended an overhaul of school governance focusing on school autonomy and a market-driven competition for students. As happens most of the time to such blue ribbon committees, the recommendations traveled no further than a few dusty desk drawers. Some states and districts experimented with varying models of autonomous schools that shifted decision making to the school level, but system-wide reforms didn’t materialize.

Then the most devastating hurricane in American history hit the Gulf Coast.

 “Since then, New Orleans has conducted the nation’s first serious test of this proposition, and the results could well shake the foundations of American education,” Osborne wrote in a comprehensive study called “Born on the Bayou: A New Model for American Education.”

In this comprehensive study of New Orleans’ transformation from school dummy to most improved district in the state and possibly the nation, Osborne outlines how the city’s 2005 hurricane disaster provided the circumstances that turned theory into practice and practice into documented success.

The school system that once consistently tied with another Louisiana parish for dead last in academic achievement and ultimately one of the worst in the nation, now boasts double-digit improvements in test scores, graduation rates and national college entrance exams for black students.

The magic formula for New Orleans contained a complicated set of circumstances that bold leaders and dozens of reformed-minded educators and activists turned to their advantage. Step by step, they have been breaking the bureaucratic chokehold that traditionalists and teachers unions have had on the New Orleans’ school system and still have on most of the nation’s public schools.

The outcome is a network of semi-autonomous charter schools that have unprecedented control over budgets and hiring, but are subject to closure if they fail to produce students who can perform at grade level or above. More than 80 percent of New Orleans schools are now governed by their own independent boards. Within a few years, virtually all of the city’s 42,000 students will be enrolled in charter schools because the Recovery School District, which took over most of the schools after Hurricane Katrina, has been systematically divesting itself of direct-run schools.

Osborne gives credit – rightly – to visionaries such as: Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education; former Louisiana governors Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco; Paul Pastorek, former state Superintendent of Education; and Paul Vallas, former superintendent of the RSD, for the system’s turnaround.

The path started with a pre-Katrina constitutional amendment that set up the RSD, a state agency created to take over failing schools statewide. That amendment gave state officials a way to take over most of New Orleans’ schools after the storm. The Orleans Parish School Board, which was already under federal scrutiny for mismanagement and later corruption, was left with only a handful of successful schools. Most of the schools were flooded, and there was little money available to get them open.

Many of today’s charter schools developed by necessity after Katrina because there was no other way to get schools opened fast. Osborne says that charters also got a foothold because U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu succeeded in acquiring $30 million of federal money that was designated for charter start-ups. Vallas, known as a school district turnover specialist, moved the trend along by giving as many failing schools as he could to successful charter operators before he moved on to another challenge.

Fortified by empowered principals, an infusion of foundation grants and well-educated new teachers supplied by nonprofit teacher recruitment organizations such as Teach for America, these charters started showing results. By 2009, 37 percent of RSD-educated students were testing at grade level, an increase of 14 percent in two years. In 2012, the percentage had increased to 51 percent, according to Osborne’s report based on state education figures. In five years, the percentages of students scoring at grade level had increased by 28 percent.

In an introduction to the Osborne’s study, Elaine C. Kamarck, of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way, a Washington D.C. think tank, said that New Orleans’ charter dominated school system is the nation’s “first system-wide experiment in public education reform.”

Kamarck and Cowan said New Orleans’ “all charter model” provides a more effective system for the 21st century. “The lessons and principles contained in the charter experiment in New Orleans provide the greatest hope for every school district – rich, middle class or poor – to make their school far better,” they wrote.   
In the report’s final section, Osborne poses a question: will the New Orleans Model spread? Only the future will bring an answer to this question, but Osborne says that many are watching New Orleans and “a few are already emulating it.” He reports that Michigan, Tennessee and Hawaii have already set up systems like the RSD.

The New Orleans model could spread, he says. “Because it harnesses the power of decentralization, choice, competition, contestability and accountability for results, it’s simply a superior form of governance. As such, it is capable of producing better results almost anywhere.”   

Percentage Increases at Grade Level or Above on All Standardized Tests, 2007-’12
Recovery School District: 28%
Orleans Parish School Board: 16%
State-run: 8%
Source: Osborne, Louisiana State Department of Education