Researchers at Tulane University say there are questions about whether the apparent successes of post-Katrina education in New Orleans can be easily duplicated in other cities.
We shall answer these questions: They can’t be, or not easily.
The reason is pretty obvious — the comprehensive wiping out of the pre-Katrina Orleans Parish school system was a remarkable and singular event. Alternatives, including the heavy use of publicly funded but independent charter schools, would have been more difficult to put in place otherwise.
Three articles by researchers at Tulane’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans published Aug. 4 on the website Education Next looked at various aspects of the education overhaul that took place after levee failures and catastrophic flooding in 2005 led to a state takeover of most New Orleans public schools. Most schools in New Orleans are now charters, most under the umbrella of the Recovery School District established by the state.
There is considerable evidence of improved student performance in the post-Katrina system despite the noisy disputes of critics of charter schools. The researchers added that New Orleans’ changes are a valuable model for other districts to examine.
The researchers, though, rightly noted that there are huge political hurdles to duplicate the New Orleans model elsewhere.
We can suggest at least one area where the political difficulties, combined with the inherent challenges of education today, have hobbled many similar efforts: Baton Rouge.
Here, with an existing school system under fire for lackluster performance, there has still been considerable political pushback against charters imposed by the RSD. And despite good intentions by charter organizers over the last decade, poor educational performance in schools in the city’s poorest areas was not magically erased by governance changes.
A new, and we think more enduring, wave of charters is on the way in the capital city, with a privately funded organization of charter boosters vetting or actively recruiting top operators for new schools in north Baton Rouge. While that’s an experiment in its own way, it’s also a shrewder and more systematic approach to an education problem that is going to be hard — for either charters or the East Baton Rouge public system. The challenges of poverty, particularly over several generations, are not easily overcome.
Before Memphis, Tennessee, or Cleveland or somewhere else embarks on the New Orleans model, they might want to look at the challenges in Baton Rouge as a more real-world case.
New Orleans was, once again, a unique example, this time in public education. “There was nothing to stand in the way of that with everybody out of the city,” Tulane economics professor Douglas Harris wrote in one of the new articles on the Education Next site.
That made a huge difference, but no one wants to see the damage done by the 2005 storms and flooding as an antecedent to school reform.