Most local residents feel the city’s independent charter schools have improved public education in New Orleans, according to a joint poll conducted by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives and The New Orleans Advocate.
Yet 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 school system.
The state takeover that followed the storm and the decision to turn management of the vast majority of city schools over to autonomous nonprofit groups still inspires intense disagreement about whether students are actually better off.
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.”
A 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 figures 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.”
There is still a significant racial split over charter schools, with African Americans consistently less likely than whites 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.
Despite those generally positive findings, 45 percent of respondents said they would give the school system a C, while only 17 percent would offer a B and just 4 percent an A. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said the quality of private school education is still superior.
The results also reflect a certain level of ambivalence about a complex and still-evolving school system.
A clear majority said they feel charter schools have improved education, and charters have taken over nearly all public schools in New Orleans in the past decade. Yet only 37 percent of respondents said the schools are doing better now than they were before Katrina; 21 percent said the schools were actually doing better before the storm, and another 28 percent said school quality is about the same.
Respondents were about evenly split over who should govern schools in New Orleans at this point. Since Katrina, the Recovery School District, a state agency, has been the governing body for most city schools.
Overall, 44 percent said those schools should go back to the Orleans Parish School Board within either the next two years or the next five years. Precisely the same proportion said the schools should remain in the RSD, or that officials should stick with the current policy, which allows charter schools themselves to make the call once they’ve achieved a certain academic ranking.
When the institute posed the same set of options in a poll last year, the results skewed more heavily toward the status quo. At the time, 57 percent of respondents favored either keeping schools in the RSD or leaving it up to the schools, while only 29 percent said schools should go back to the OPSB in the next few years.
The School Board’s recent decision to hire Henderson Lewis Jr. as superintendent after a long national search may have helped its image. A plurality of respondents said either that the decision did not change their opinion or that they were unsure. But 23 percent said his hiring gave them more confidence in the board, compared with 13 percent who said the opposite.
The Cowen Institute, which drew up the survey questions independently and received funding for the poll from The Advocate, also asked a number of questions not directly related to the post-Katrina charter movement.
Opposition to Common Core, the new academic standards being adopted by Louisiana and states across the country, outstripped support, 38 percent to 31 percent. Yet, 62 percent versus 27 percent said students in local public schools should be measured by the same set of exams as in other states, one of the primary goals of Common Core.
The poll found overwhelming support — more than 90 percent — for the idea that all public high schools in New Orleans should offer career and technical training, rather than focusing solely on preparing students to go on to four-year colleges.