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New Orleans rebuilds education system with charter schools

June 5, 2014 at 6:29 PM EDT
In September, New Orleans will be the country’s first all-charter school district. The evolution was accelerated after Hurricane Katrina, when state officials and others seized the opportunity to overhaul the city’s troubled schools. Special education correspondent John Merrow and Sarah Carr, author of "Hope Against Hope," join Jeffrey Brown to discuss the transition and its national implications.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As the school year comes to a close across the country, one of the issues that’s been grabbing major attention in a number of cities this year is the continuing growth of charter schools. New Orleans has been ground zero for this change, and the end of this school year marks a historic moment for the city.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: In September, New Orleans will be home to the country’s first all-charter school district. It’s an evolution that began more than a decade ago and was greatly accelerated after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, when state officials and others seized the opportunity to overhaul the city’s troubled system.

Special correspondent for education John Merrow reported on the effort over the years in a series of stories for us and has now produced a documentary titled “Rebirth.”

Here’s a short clip that takes us back to early days for the charter movement in 2005.

JOHN MERROW, Special Education Correspondent: December 14, 2005, much of the city is still deserted.

O. Perry Walker High School, one of the few school buildings to escape serious damage, is about to reopen.

WOMAN: Hopefully, never, ever again in the history of this country, not to mention the world, will any group of folks will be given an opportunity because of a Katrina or some other natural disaster.

But the reality is, we have this opportunity, and we need to seize this moment.

WOMAN: We have to be on my toes when the kids come in. And you set the stage, we all know that. If you have taught one month, you know that the first day sets the stage.

MAN: Some us, as teachers, we’re going to want to go back the way it was done before. A lot of the children, you know, are going to be expecting things to look like they did before. And — and it’s just going to be interesting how we can create a new vision of what — who we are and what we want to be.

JOHN MERROW: Walker was reopening as a public charter school. This meant it was no longer controlled by the local school board. Although publicly funded, it would be privately run, more like a small business. And like a business, O. Perry Walker charter school had a bottom line, to educate its students. If it failed to do that, it could lose its charter and be shut down.

It was a far cry from the old way of running schools.

JEFFREY BROWN: And John Merrow joins us now. Also with us is Sarah Carr of the Hechinger Report, an online education news site. She’s author of “Hope Against Hope,” a book about New Orleans’ charter schools.

Well, John, from that time to now, help us understand all this. I think you refer to New Orleans now as a system of schools, rather than a school system? Explain.

JOHN MERROW: Well, it’s almost all charter schools. There are still a few traditional schools within what’s the old Orleans Parish School Board.

But there are about 88 schools and I think all but five of them are charter schools. They’re about 45,000 students. And all but maybe 2,500 go to charter schools. So it is a system of schools.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Sarah, Sarah Carr, has it been a smooth transition? Has there been — remind us. Has there been opposition along the way? Where are we now with that?

SARAH CARR, Author, “Hope Against Hope”: You know, you can find people who think what has happened is the greatest thing to occur in the history of urban education and people who think it’s — it’s the worst thing. I think people who — most people who are being honest will admit it’s someplace in the middle.

And I have found in years reporting on it, that it’s really the families at the grassroots level who have the most nuanced and balanced perspective a lot of the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, John, continuing, just to help us understand what is going on here, one of the big questions, obviously, is, who is in charge now? What kind of accountability is there? How much political accountability, for that matter?

JOHN MERROW: That’s a terrific question.

The Bureau of Elementary and Secondary Education is ultimately in charge of most of the charters. The metric is very narrow, its test scores. In fact, it’s gotten narrower. Pre-K through six, schools are judged 100 percent by their performance on state tests. It used to be 95 percent and 5 percent attendance.

Seven charter schools — I think that’s the number — Sarah may have a better number — but seven charter schools have gone out of business because they failed to keep the promises they made in order to get the charter.

But they have discovered they need some kind of central authority. And the charter, the Recovery School District and the old Orleans Parish have just entered into an agreement to try to have — to codify the rules so that everybody obeys the same rules. And they have set up a fund to provide extra money for very expensive special-needs kids.

So there’s a cooperation and there’s a recognition they need some oversight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Sarah Carr, continue on that. Tell us more about that theme. But also start us on the — sort of, what do we know so far about the results at this point of this switch?

SARAH CARR: Yes, well, the principals really do have pretty unprecedented autonomy and flexibility to hire and fire and set their own curriculum and their own calendar.

And they have individual boards that oversee them. But there is sometimes a conflict of interests, if those boards are appointed or picked by the principals. So I do think there is this question moving forward of how active the state board will be in overseeing the schools on a daily basis.

The — overall, the test scores have been on an upward trend. And the data is very hotly debated, just because it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, since thousands of families didn’t come back after Katrina.

And I think we really need to watch in the long-term to see what college graduation rates look like, and not — not arrive at sort of snap or quick conclusions based on short-term data.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Merrow, where do you think the results point to so far, and what are you looking for in the coming years?

JOHN MERROW: Well, I reported for us before Katrina, and they were — it was a terrible school system, an F or an F-minus.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JOHN MERROW: It’s now, I would think, probably a C or a C-minus.

The question is — Sarah is right — you have to keep track of the graduation records. There is a new poll that’s coming out next week from the Cowen Institute at Tulane. And they suggest that almost 50 percent of those polled say the schools are either improving or are good. And about 18 percent say they are actually worse; 25 percent say they’re about the same.

All — they divide evenly. Would you recommend the school to a friend? Forty-five percent say they would; 43.85 say they wouldn’t. So, you know, it is an ongoing experiment. There is no question about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Sarah Carr, how much stability is there in this new system? And what kind of new problems, perhaps, arise to a shift to an all or almost all charter system?

SARAH CARR: Well, there has been a fair amount of instability, just in that you have schools that have been phased out and closed down and converted to charter operators.

And so I have — you know, I have met families who have found sort of more structured, ambitious charter schools that they love. And I have met the ones whose children have been bounced between four or five schools just in high school alone.

And I think one of the main challenges moving forward will be making sure that the schools are reaching the most vulnerable children and families.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what do we know, John Merrow, so far, about public attitudes toward this?

JOHN MERROW: Well, that’s interesting.

There is a general level, as I said, would you recommend yes, maybe no, but 51 percent of those polled — and, as I say, this Cowen Institute poll will come out next week — 51 percent say the schools do not prepare the kids for college, and 56 percent say the schools do not prepare the kids for work.

So there’s a real level of dissatisfaction. And one of the striking things to me is that New Orleans, which — music is the lifeblood — there’s almost — there’s no charter school devoted to art and music. There’s one that is the creative arts. And there are 88 schools in all.

So I find it striking, because they’re so obsessed with test scores, that there isn’t the richness that you would expect in the — in charter schools. So I think the challenge going forward will be to try to figure out a new metric, so you can have a variety of schools and provide kids with more challenging experiences.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Sarah, let me just ask you.

Sorry, John.

Sarah, just very briefly, if you could, this is an experiment that is being watched as a model in other places, right?

SARAH CARR: Mm-hmm, very much so.

And I think a lot of the tensions and changes that are happening in New Orleans are happening at a smaller scale in other cities, including the growth in charter schools and increased reliance on Teach for America and alternative teacher programs and this sort of attack on teachers unions.

So I think that it — even though what happened in and the way it happened was very — was very unique in New Orleans, it definitely has a lot of implications as urban school systems restructure across the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Sarah Carr, John Merrow, thank you both very much.

JOHN MERROW: Thank you.

SARAH CARR: Thank you.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.