Katrina's Silver Lining - The School Choice Revolution in New Orleans

Before hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005, New Orleans had one of the worst performing public school districts in the nation. Katrina forced nearly a million people to leave their homes and caused almost $100 billion in damages. To an already failing public school system, the storm seemed to provide the final deathblow. But then something amazing happened. In the wake of Katrina, education reformers decided to seize the opportunity and start fresh with a system based on choice.

Today, New Orleans has the most market-based school system in the US. 60% of New Orleans students currently attend charter schools, test scores are up, and talented and passionate educators from around the country are flocking to New Orleans to be a part of the education revolution. It's too early to tell if the New Orleans experiment in school choice will succeed over the long term, but for the first time in decades people are optimistic about the future of New Orleans schools.

Approximately 10 minutes. Produced by Paul Feine; hosted by Nick Gillespie; shot by Alex Manning and Dan Hayes; edited by Alex Manning.

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  • ||


    If you bring in schools to compete with public schools PEOPLE WILL DIE! Want proof? Look at how many people have died in New Orleans since Katrina hit...need I say more?

  • ||

    I'm curious to know to what extent the improvements in test scores are due to New Orleans shedding a significant percentage of its poorest (and correspondingly lowest performing) students and their families.

    If the post-Katrina exodus were evenly distributed across socioeconomic and racial lines, then this could be genuine improvement. If it's just the result of a shift in demographics...then not so much.

  • ||

    Interesting. I never really read about it, but I assumed the people who left and never looked back were the ones who were better educated, since they'd have more opportunities around the country. I guess it could be the opposite.

  • ||

    Please note: I'm not claiming that the poor left N.O. in disproportionate numbers. That may be the case, but I have no information either way.

    My post was more hypothetical. Given there has been a large movement of population, attributing the increased school performance to the new model seems premature without demographic data to establish that today's population still resembles the pre-Katrina group.

  • Interesting||

    buddyglass, Reverse your theory and look at school districts that amalgamated these students. Review for a decline in performance.

  • Bob||

    Both and neither

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    In my part of Texas, the increase in violence and decrease in academics have -- according to friends who teach in the schools -- correlated pretty well with the increase in New Orleans Saints T-shirts and bumper stickers in the area. Anecdotal, to be sure. Could be a coincidence, I guess.

  • zoltan||

    I doubt that; crime rates in Houston skyrocketed in the months after Katrina. When people are poor and desperate (or were already living lives a crime) it's highly likely. Not to mention that criminals like New Orleans Police Department officers (some, not all) evacuated without permission to Houston--stupidly, in their own cop cars! HPD officers were taking pictures each week of these morons who thought they could get away with stealing N.O. property.

  • zoltan||

    The poor were the least likely to evacuate due to Katrina as many did not own cars and the city did not use any kind of public transportation to get them out of the bowl or N.O. East. Then again, those whose homes were destroyed were mostly in poor neighborhoods and many of these have not been rebuilt. New Orleans already had a strong private school system (mostly Catholic) even before Katrina, and many of these schools helped and catered to the poor.

  • Interesting||

    "The results from this needs assessment highlight that the evacuees
    surveyed predominantly were black, of lower socio-economic status, and
    had substantial, pre-existing medical and mental health concerns."

  • zoltan||

    Was this compared to the New Orleans population? Or the population nationally? New Orlean's is much blacker and poorer than the rest of the country so it would make a lot of sense for the amount of evacuees to be skewed in that direction. I still don't think those evacuees represented New Orleans in those categories. The problem with the evacuee stats I'm finding are that they are not clear about evacuees pre and post storm.

  • ||

    Pre vs. post-storm shouldn't really matter, should it? All you want to do is compare today's New Orleans population to its population immediately prior to Katrina.

    If the current population is "more white" or "less poor" than the pre-Katrina population then that would be a possible alternate explanation for the performance improvement, thus weakening the assertion that this improvement was caused by the change in school choice policy.

  • Old Mexican||

    Today, New Orleans has the most market-based school system in the US. 60% of New Orleans students currently attend charter schools, test scores are up, and talented and passionate educators from around the country are flocking to New Orleans to be a part of the education revolution [...]

    ... and put a stop to it.

  • omg||

    I wonder how long this will last. Governments and Unions don't hate private education institutions because they fail, they hate private education institutions because they succeed.

    Just think of what would happen if someone designed a reliable method to teach all the knowledge we currently teach students in K-12 by age 14. Think of what the teacher's union would say if someone were to propose such a system.

  • ||


  • Bob||

    There is some push-back but the Public schools are so inept that they are not having huge amounts of success yet.

    This is not a voucher system (similar in effect though) but a system of Charter Schools licensed by the state of LA. So it is a more market based approach (with freedom of choice for parents and students and more experimentation in types/styles of schools) but is still public education.

  • TallDave||

    They already taught the Saints how to win the Super Bowl.

  • zoltan||


  • ||

    This is awesome. My brother moved his new family to New Orleans after Katrina and I'm sure he will be glad to know the system that his kids may be educated in is improving. It's just too bad it took a major disaster for it to happen.

  • ||

    Lisa. I live about an hour outside of the city, and my wife is from Metairie (a suburb of New Orleans). The odds are extremely high that if your brother lives in Orleans parish and is white, his kids go to a catholic school. I do not know a single white person born after around 1965 who attended an Orleans parish public school. Not one.

    Granted most of the people I know who currently have school age children live in Jefferson parish, but even there, it seems the vast majority of white students attend a catholic school.

  • ||

    Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration.

    True that many whites go the private or parochial route in New Orleans. But you are forgetting about schools like Ben Franklin, which I did not attend but knew a fair number of Caucasians who attended. Admittedly this was a magnet school.

  • ||

    I did not say there are no Caucasian kids in the system, just that the number of them is low. Low enough that you can know lots of Caucasian people from the city and not know anyone who attended public school. (In Orleans anyway. I do know several people who attended public school in St. Bernard and Jefferson.)

  • ||

    Nick, in January 2010, CREDO (the same org you cited research not showing much gain) put out a second report on NYC charter schools that had a better research design that showed significant improvement for students attending the charter schools.

  • Paul Harris||

    There are so very many variables that it is hard to draw concrete conclusions. Certainly some say throwing money at a problem doesn't help. Yet in this case, maybe it does.

    A wake up call such as a major disaster can have negative effects on the attention span of some kids, while on others it may be a bit of slapping them with reality and having them work to change their previous situation. Still the coming together of so many caring folks (teachers, neighbors, families, etc.) during a major upheaval can benefit the school system. Only time will tell and hopefully heal.

    Paul Harris
    Author, "Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina"

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