One unexpected by-product of Hurricane Katrina: New Orleans is now the only city in America offering unfettered public school choice.
Schools have dropped residency requirements, so any student living anywhere in the city can register at any school on a first come, first served basis. (If individual schools are oversubscribed, a lottery determines who gets to attend.) This year, students can choose from 31 charter schools, 17 state-run schools, and five schools run by the local district. Twenty-five different organizations, from nonprofits to national charter chains, are running schools, and the options run from comprehensive curricula to niche schools featuring early college, French immersion, Montessori, the arts, and architectural design.
Schools fought to attract customers with radio and TV advertising, enrollment fairs, visits to local churches and community groups, and roadside signs pitching the benefits of their programs. The New Orleans Times-Picayune told parents, "Think of yourselves as consumers in a brand new marketplace."
Critics predicted chaos all summer. In August, The New York Times ran a negative piece headlined "Rough Start for State's Efforts to Remake Faltering Schools in New Orleans." Tulane University education professor Lance Hill told the Times, "We've created the most balkanized school system in North America. The average parent is mystified.">
But as the Times-Picayune reported a month later, 53 schools with 34,000 students have opened with relative calm and few snafus. Parents somehow managed to navigate their choices without mass chaos, and now one of America's pre-eminent cities is getting a dose of educational liberty. All it took was a hurricane.