The dramatic experiment in school management undertaken in New Orleans is one of the most closely watched events in public education in America.
A new study calls it "a great success" and we agree, but for advocates of charter schools, the dramatic event of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees in 2005 made an entirely new model feasible.
For other jurisdictions, as in the growing number of charter schools in Baton Rouge, we don't know if that is feasible — but the benefits of charters for students can be substantial, and for that reason the new study's lessons are important across the state.
After the state seized control of most of the city’s public schools in 2005 and began turning them over to charter operators, test scores shot up by as much as 16 percentiles, researchers at Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans found.
High school graduation rates have risen by as much as 9 percentage points, college graduation rates are up by as much as 5 points, and the city’s college entry and "persistence" rates of staying in higher education also have improved.
“We aren’t aware of any other district or program that has had this kind of improvement across such a wide range of outcomes,” said Douglas Harris, the alliance’s director. “Compared with pre-(Hurricane) Katrina student outcomes, we see substantial increases in every measure available.”
The report comes as the elected Orleans Parish School Board this month reclaimed all of the city’s charter schools, after years of state oversight. Those schools will retain their independence for operations, but the local school board must hold them accountable for performance.
Another change is that test scores are not rising in recent years as they did earlier, and the Tulane institute promises another study into that situation.
Still, “To the extent that the goal of the reforms was to increase ... commonly measured student outcomes, the reforms have to be judged a great success,” Harris and Matthew Larsen, of Lafayette College, note in their report.
The benefits of charters can be significant whether in an all-charter system like that in New Orleans or in a mix of traditional schools and charter institutions, as in Jefferson Parish or East Baton Rouge. Charters are responsible for performance, and their contracts can be revoked if they do poorly, for example. But as the New Orleans experiment is the headliner for a change in governance of a whole system, these results will be given a lot of attention not only in Louisiana but among educators in the nation at large.