Georgia lawmakers must have whiplash. Back in February, Gov. Nathan Deal flew a whole delegation of them down to New Orleans with him so they could see up close how charter schools have transformed public education here, an approach the governor hopes to copy in his own state.

They toured some of the best-performing charter schools in the city and heard from state officials involved in remaking the district. Leslie Jacobs, a former state school board member, told them Georgia should act slowly and be careful about deciding who gets to run schools. “You can have quick failure or slow success,” she said.

Then, just a few days later, local education activist Karran Harper Royal got on a plane to Atlanta and told another group of legislators something completely different. New Orleans is not a success story at all, she said.

“It is an experiment in taking power and control over people because different people think they know better how poor minority children should be taught,” Royal said.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina cleared the way for a new kind of public school system in New Orleans, the argument over its merits remains as contentious as ever.

Data show the percentage of high school dropouts has shrunk, while the number of city students passing state exams continues to climb steadily. Yet, if anything, those figures have only intensified the debate, raising the stakes considerably as lawmakers around the country implement similar strategies or consider whether to do so.

Detractors still insist that academic gains in New Orleans are illusory, or unimpressive, or bought at too high a price.

And the price, by any measure, has been high.

Teachers returning to a wrecked city after the storm found their jobs and their retirement benefits had been washed away, just like their homes. Families discovered that under a new paradigm, their children’s school might be abruptly shut down for failing to improve test scores.

Administrators for years struggled to devise a fair system for enrolling students in a district without traditional neighborhood school boundaries. And in the meantime, students with disabilities sometimes found themselves unwanted, bounced from one campus to the next.

Not even the charter school movement’s biggest fans argue that better schools came without pitfalls or pain.

“When people are looking to do this in other places, they’re coming to New Orleans 10 years later,” Jacobs said. “They’re not understanding the journey to get to where we are today.”

After Katrina, state officials were eager to blow up the traditional, centralized school system that used to run public education in New Orleans. The idea was to shift decision-making from politicians and bureaucrats to the people who actually run schools: the principals and teachers.

Before, an elected board would hire a superintendent to run the district. A central office would select principals and hire teachers, establish curriculum and buy textbooks.

Under the new regime, almost every school would operate independently as its own nonprofit. The head of each school or a small group of schools would do the hiring and policymaking. If they couldn’t get results, the state would shut down the school or find another operator.

Unforeseen challenges

Inevitably, there were challenges that officials didn’t anticipate.

Consider Derrick Batiste. In 2011, when he arrived at KIPP McDonogh 15 in the French Quarter for kindergarten, the school wasn’t sure what to do with him. He has autism. He cannot speak or use the restroom without help.

Jessica Taylor, who runs Mac 15’s special-needs program, had never had to accommodate a student without any ability to follow the regular curriculum. Ordinarily, she would work with students one on one for 30 minutes to an hour per day. Derrick needed more than that, and he was only the first.

“We got some kids who were several years behind, didn’t recognize any letters, nonverbal,” Taylor said. “I spent the first year figuring out what that meant. Our need has just gone through the roof.”

Legally speaking, charter schools like KIPP are school districts unto themselves, and as such, they cannot turn away a student for having a disability.

In a traditional system, schools can typically draw on extra staff or services provided by a central office. In post-Katrina New Orleans, almost every school is on its own. The extra staff required can be expensive, and Louisiana’s formula for doling out money to schools has not always fully compensated them for special needs, though lawmakers recently have tried to address the imbalance.

By 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center already had filed a lawsuit claiming that charter schools in New Orleans either were not providing disabled students with services required by law or simply were not letting them enroll. Now there’s a court-supervised reform plan involving closer state scrutiny of the way schools in New Orleans provide for disabled students. Prodded by persistent complaints, administrators finally implemented a central enrollment system that assigns students through a central office.

Derrick’s experience at Mac 15 shows just how flexible an autonomous charter school could be in confronting unexpected challenges, free to improvise and tailor its approach to fit the needs of unique children. It also suggests how daunting the job can be.

“We had to find a way or make one,” Taylor said, “and we made one.”

She talked with child psychologists and scoured the Internet for research on autism. She borrowed from the new Common Core academic standards being rolled out across the country and took ideas from the Montessori preschools she had worked in before she earned her education degree at Tulane University.

A passion that shows

This past school year, Taylor ran a classroom of eight students. At 8 a.m., they would come tromping off the school bus and into the classroom at the back of Mac 15, an old building with tall ceilings.

First came breakfast. Some of the more able students helped set the table. On the count of three, everyone chimed in, “Bon appétit, now you can eat!”

As they washed their dishes in plastic bins full of soapy water, Taylor queued up the first in a series of YouTube videos on a laptop connected to a high-tech overhead projector. A voice that sounded a little like “Weird Al” Yankovic started singing about the sound the letter H makes as students took their place on a bright-purple carpet.

The children in Taylor’s class all have different challenges. Enrolled in the second, third and fourth grades, they range in intellectual ability from the equivalent of a 2-year-old to a preschooler. Some of them spend more than half their day in a regular classroom, others just 5 percent. Some can speak; others can’t. There are wheelchairs and walkers.

Much of the day, small groups rotate among different stations: “dramatic play” on the carpet, games on a set of iPads or one of a collection of Montessori-type activities, such as counting with coins.

Taylor has two classroom aides, one of whom spends half of the day working one on one with Derrick. A big, green rubber band around his waist keeps him from squirming out of his chair.

Derrick’s mother, Shirley Batiste, is a big fan of Taylor’s classroom. “It’s her passion, and when you have a passion for something, it shows,” Batiste said, standing in her kitchen in Gentilly one day recently, still wearing pink scrubs from her job as a nurse.

In some ways, the new school system is working for Batiste. She has two children at Mac 15 and nothing bad to say about the school. She likes the idea of open enrollment. “What if I had a school that was a failing school, and I had to go to that school because it’s in my area?” she said.

On the other hand, she has been through some of the headaches that come with a radically decentralized system. It’s hard to get information about what services are available and where. At first, she enrolled Derrick at Joseph A. Craig Elementary School in Treme, where he spent a whole year going “backward,” she said.

“It’s not like you go to your primary physician and they say, ‘We’re going to set you up with a social worker who’s going to take care of you,’ ” Batiste said. “Resources for special needs are very limited, unorganized.”

Even now, KIPP is racing to keep up with the needs of its most vulnerable students. Taylor said she can accommodate as many as 10 students in her class. She will have to keep improvising when the 11th shows up.

A state of shock

Leslie Jacobs dates her epiphany about the school system to the early 1990s, when she was a young insurance executive who had just been elected to the Orleans Parish School Board. The local teachers union asked her to help read essays by recent high school graduates applying for college scholarships. These were the district’s top performers, students with straight A’s and big aspirations.

“One after another — functionally illiterate,” Jacobs said, recalling one young woman from John F. Kennedy High School who wanted to be an English teacher and turned in an essay full of errors in basic noun-verb agreement and punctuation. “I was in a state of shock.”

She had the district start pulling data for her and found that high schools where almost no one was passing the state’s Graduation Exit Exam were handing out report cards showing perfect grades.

After a frustrating stint on the local board, Jacobs got herself appointed to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. She helped design an accountability system with school performance scores and rules barring students from advancing beyond fourth or eighth grade without passing state exams. The Legislature passed a law creating the Recovery School District, which began taking over a few of New Orleans’ worst schools in 2004.

By the time the storm hit a year later, Louisiana already had classified most of the public schools in New Orleans as “failing,” to say nothing of apparent financial mismanagement. A New York consulting firm brought in to manage the district’s books was getting ready to float bonds so the board could make payroll for the coming school year. But most schools were still under local control.

Jacobs acknowledges that school reform in New Orleans probably could not have happened without Katrina — certainly not on such an ambitious scale. The storm gave state officials cover for extraordinary measures. Amid the chaos, state officials took over all but about a dozen schools from the parish School Board, which then fired all of its employees, almost instantly solving the district’s money problems.

“What Katrina gave us — it gave us time,” Jacobs said. Up until about 2007, “most folks were incredibly busy just re-establishing their lives, and in that time, we were able to show results, which gave us more support for the future.”

The making of an activist

Karran Harper Royal certainly had no inkling of what was going on. After the storm, she was driving two hours each way between an apartment in Baton Rouge and her destroyed home in Gentilly, where she would sit on the porch scouring the Yellow Pages for plumbers and electricians. She remembers crying a lot. “I think I was in a deep depression,” she said.

She didn’t realize what was happening to the school system until the state superintendent at the time, Cecil Picard, sent her a letter asking if she would sit on a community advisory committee for the recovery district, an experience that left her unimpressed with the new management.

“They weren’t really seeking our advice,” she said. “I don’t know why they put that committee together.”

Royal got involved in the school system about the same time Jacobs did. In 1992, her son was getting kicked out of his kindergarten class at McDonogh 15, the same school Derrick Batiste attends now. A teacher suggested Royal’s child might have ADHD. So Royal quit her job and started going to school with him every day. Then she started going to School Board meetings. She went from a “timid, shy” parent to a full-throated activist.

In the back of her mind, she kept her brother, a high school dropout who turned into a car thief and a drug user, in and out of prison. “I was terrified that what happened to my brother would happen to my son,” Royal said. “I didn’t come from a family where people went to college. I come from public housing.”

Royal remembers the old school system differently than Jacobs does. She remembers a system with problems but one that also was democratic, one where a concerned parent could influence a board vote or sit on a committee that would debate discipline policies, like she did. The boards that govern charter schools are appointed rather than elected, and the state board that approves charters has only one member elected by New Orleanians.

The online battle

These are the opposite poles of a debate that has gone national and grown ugly.

With the 10th anniversary of the storm approaching, national media attention has surged. Online commentators, typically approaching from the political left, regularly attack the schools here. They see the charter movement as a “market-based” assault on organized labor, given that most charter schools operate without unions, and as a gambit by mostly rich, white elites to prove that schools can improve with better management rather than more tax money.

Diane Ravitch, the country’s most prominent charter critic, often strafes the Recovery School District on her website, sometimes taking her cues from Royal and other local activists.

Lately, the charter movement’s supporters have started to push back more aggressively online.

New Schools for New Orleans, a group that doles out grants for startup schools, has stepped up its presence on Twitter. Teach for America alumnus Peter Cook, who taught at John McDonogh High School before the storm, uses his blog to spar with adversaries like Mercedes Schneider, a St. Tammany Parish high school teacher who calls the Recovery School District a “hologram of victory.”

Every scrap of data about schools in New Orleans is challenged and picked apart in debates that often veer into personal attacks.

“If you’re in any way critical of the school system, you’re the devil,” said Eden Heilman, one of the Southern Poverty Law Center attorneys who brought the lawsuit over special education. “I think that’s unfortunate. People have gotten too far into their respective corners.”

Part of the trouble is that most of the information about how schools are doing comes from the Louisiana Department of Education, which also runs the Recovery School District. The same officials responsible for overseeing and improving schools in New Orleans, in other words, are responsible for putting out data about how students are faring.

Modest improvements?

Still, the most rigorous independent attempts to crunch the numbers on schools here have tended to confirm that charter schools in New Orleans — on the whole — perform at least modestly better than their traditional counterparts.

Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes has done several studies comparing how quickly students in Louisiana charter schools progress during the course of a school year, compared with peers in traditional schools. One analysis in 2013 showed charter school students gaining 65 days’ worth of learning in math and 50 days in reading.

A group at Tulane University called the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans has made the most comprehensive attempt to isolate exactly how much the reforms themselves have pushed up test scores. Using a control group of students from other storm-hit areas of Louisiana, the Alliance pulled together various data sets to try and control for other factors that might have otherwise effected scores, like poverty levels or trauma caused by the hurricane.

The Alliance has not presented the results in a formal paper yet, but Douglas Harris, the group’s director, summarized the findings at a conference in New Orleans last month. The upshot was that state figures more or less accurately reflect the impact of the shift toward charter schools and choice. By the year 2012, the New Orleans test takers in the elementary and middle school grades had come from behind and surpassed the control group. The difference between the two groups amounted to as much as two thirds of the distance between scoring at “approaching basic” on the state’s LEAP exam and “basic,” which is considered passing.

Those results won’t convince everyone that charter schools are the answer.

Probably the only conclusion on which there is a broad consensus is this: “The amount of attention paid to education is incredible,” Heilman said.

The Katrina factor

Before Katrina, there was no Education Research Alliance at Tulane and no Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives. Lawmakers from other states did not fly to New Orleans to see for themselves what educators here were up to. There were not hundreds of private citizens serving on the boards of charter schools.

This is a part of the unquantifiable influence that Katrina itself had on the school system and one reason researchers are cautious about whether success here can be duplicated in other cities. There is no telling how much schools here benefited from the sheer attention paid to the city’s most chronic ills in the years immediately after the storm.

Meeting in Denver this year, education reporters from around the country debated the extent to which “it” cities had the upper hand in trying to turn around failing schools. And New Orleans, at least in education circles, is as “it” as it gets.

“I think Katrina, watching it, should have changed everybody,” said Mary Haynes-Smith, the principal at Bethune Elementary School. “I think it altered the way we think and the way we do things.”

Smith heads one of six remaining traditional schools in the city. It still falls under the Orleans Parish School Board, which is now hoping to lure schools back from the Recovery School District. A veteran of the old school system, Smith says things have improved under the current board. She can get the superintendent on the phone now that he isn’t dealing with 120 or so other principals. Repairs happen more quickly. And, like charter school leaders, she gets to hire her own staff.

But the community also has pitched in big. She ticked off the Better Than Ezra Foundation, the local neighborhood association, the nearby Costco store and the Saints and Pelicans. All have volunteered or funded projects.

“I think, after the storm, all of us sat down and said, ‘Wow, thank God I got out; look how blessed we were,’” Smith said. “I think everybody decided, ‘Let’s do something for those kids at the Convention Center. We can do a little more. We can take some of it and share the wealth.’ ”