Because public charter schools have become so common in New Orleans, it is sometimes difficult to remember what an extraordinary change in the education landscape they represent.
National experts are constantly pointing to New Orleans and debating the effectiveness of charters in turning around what was one of America’s worst urban systems. Yet, if the test is public approval, the charters seem to have won over many parents and residents.
Most residents feel the city’s independent charter schools have improved public education in New Orleans, according to a poll conducted for Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives and The New Orleans Advocate. That doesn’t mean that debate is over, not by a long shot.
Only 21 percent of respondents said they would give New Orleans schools overall a grade of A or B, leaving plenty of room for improvement 10 years after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters made way for the radical transformation of a long-struggling public system.
Widespread state takeover after the storm led almost inevitably to reliance on charters, independently run schools that, nevertheless, receive public allowances for students’ education.
The Cowen Institute’s latest poll results suggest that charter school backers may be gaining a relative advantage in that debate, even if few locals think public schools deserve better-than-average grades.
“There’s support for many of the reforms that have occurred since Hurricane Katrina,” said Vincent Rossmeier, the Cowen Institute’s policy director. “But there’s an acknowledgement about how far we have to go.”
The survey of 600 adults found that 59 percent of respondents “somewhat” or “strongly” agree that charter schools have improved public education in New Orleans, with a 4.1 percent margin of error.
Among respondents who actually have children in public schools, that figure rises to 71 percent. And among those parents, 59 percent said their child’s school prepares students for college or a career; 81 percent said their school provides a “safe place to learn.”
The belief that a school is safe and orderly, “school climate” as educators say, remains a huge selling point for charters and private education generally.
In a city with stark racial differences on income and educational attainment, it is not surprising that there is a significant split over charter schools: Black people are consistently less likely than white people to view the charter movement positively. Still, 53 percent of black respondents in the latest survey said they agreed that charter schools have improved education, while only 23 percent said they disagreed.
Overall, 52 percent of respondents to the poll said the abolition of neighborhood attendance zones — another controversial decision — has improved education. And 47 percent said they feel the state takeover was a good idea to begin with, compared with only 28 percent who feel the opposite.
The overall conclusion of the survey is that a majority of respondents feel charters have improved education, and that result feels right: Despite the challenges of poverty and neighborhood recovery, the charters have become part of the culture in a city that is on the mend a decade after America’s worst natural disaster.
Still, a high-performing charter school — often led by a particularly gifted principal or headmaster, like a quality public school — is a governance model, not a solution to all the problems that ail public education, or the greater New Orleans region.
Much remains to be done. Charter school or traditional public school, we want what we’re sure the public wants — all A’s for the children of the city and the region.