The Transformation of New Orleans Public Schools: Addressing System-Level Problems Without a System

Andre Perry  (Columnist The Hechinger Report) Douglas N. Harris  (Education Research Alliance at Tulane University) Christian Buerger  (Education Research Alliance at Tulane University) Vicki Mack  (The Data Center)

Published: Aug 21, 2015  Revised

Pre-Katrina, New Orleans had the next-to-lowest ranked public school district, in the next-to-lowest ranked state. The extent of New Orleans’ reform efforts have exceeded that of any other district nationwide . This has made New Orleans the focus of intense national scrutiny. This essay examines the extent of New Orleans’ reforms, as well as outcomes to date. Importantly it describes the challenges the decentralized system faced in equitably addressing school discipline, enrollment, and special education. New Orleans’ decentralized district has worked to address these system-level problems, but some problems like recruiting and retaining teachers will remain difficult to solve without a system-level solution.

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Of the various systemic reforms in New Orleans, public education can claim the most dramatic before-and-after Katrina picture. The traditional public school district, managed by the Orleans Parish School Board, not only got a makeover (New Orleans received a $1.8 billion FEMA grant to build or renovate schools); these reforms also dramatically changed who teaches, how students enroll, who’s accountable, and the funding schools received. Many urban districts across the nation have expanded the proportion of charter schools; increased the percentage of teachers trained in alternate certification programs; widened attendance zones; adopted voucher programs; constructed new facilities; and changed their relationships with teachers unions. But no city can claim to have done so with as much depth and breadth as New Orleans.

New Orleans’ post-Katrina public school reform efforts and outcomes have been the focus of intense national scrutiny as other districts consider undertaking what they consider to be similar reforms. With this in mind, it’s important to recognize the vast scope and breadth of the New Orleans reforms, and it’s equally important to understand the actual state of the pre-reform New Orleans school system as well as the circumstances under which these reforms were implemented.

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Citations and sources can be found in the PDF copy of the report.