New Orleans: The Nation’s First “Charter District”

Last month I attended my second National Charter Schools Conference in New Orleans. When I attended the first time in 2008, just three years after Hurricane Katrina, my sister and I toured the Lower Ninth Ward. Three years after the massive storm, it was heart-breaking to see the many vacant lots where houses and schools once stood. The rebuild was only beginning.

There was hope, however, in how chartering was helping to rebuild the entire community. The “Recovery School District,” previously focused on placing the state’s poorest-performing schools under state rather than local control, was now the major “school district” for New Orleans. Every school was in need of recovery, it seemed! The district relaunched all of its schools as public charter schools, providing school-level autonomy to every school leader in return for results. The district was buying into the charter school bargain: trading regulation for results, bureaucracy for autonomy. Today, over 90% of public schools in New Orleans are public charter schools—essentially our first “charter district.”

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools CEO Nina Rees wrote in her column in US News and World Report how ten years after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s Recovery School District is a model for turning around failing schools. The outcomes, she said, have been “nothing short of amazing. Graduation rates have risen from 56% to 73% and the achievement gap between students in New Orleans and the rest of the state has nearly disappeared.”  Rees noted how other states have followed this model and created similar districts, such as Tennessee Achievement School District and Michigan Education Achievement Authority.

Yes, much more needs to be done.  But Rees points to three lessons learned to improve failing schools:

Offer school-level autonomy to all schools. Chartering can be a mechanism to reform entire school districts by giving school leaders the power—and responsibility—to choose a curriculum, hire staff, and set school policies.

Engage and empower community leaders to help solve the problem. Step up as a community in partnership with schools to provide a suite of social services and support to schools, from nutrition to health care to after-school programs.

Fund the Interventions. Major investments are needed for teacher training, school start-ups, and growing charter schools. The federal government can play a major role.

These investments and policy changes shouldn’t be limited to disaster-stricken areas. Every child deserves an effective education!