Charter Schools

How Hurricane Katrina Made Radical School Choice Possible in New Orleans

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"Katrina literally and figuratively washed away many of the institutional barriers that had prevented us from even imagining that we could make systemic changes to this school system," says Patrick Dobard, superintendent of Louisiana's Recovery School District.

At the National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, D.C. Dobard told Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward how the curse of Hurricane Katrina became a blessing. New Orleans' corrupt and incompetent school board was so entrenched that it took a massive disaster that literally washed away buildings to effect change. A national tragedy became an extraordinary opportunity to make bold reforms to a school system that had resisted organizational change for decades.

In the wake of the storm, the New Orleans school district effectively became an all-charter district, meaning that students and their parents were allowed to choose among a wide range of public schools that are less regulated than traditional public schools to which students are assigned based on where they live. 

One ongoing reform involves closing the city's worst schools. Dobard is charged with this politically unpopular task, but he does so knowing that students will benefit in the long run. "We have to try to be balanced and be sensitive to community concerns," Dobard says. "But at the end of the day, we value having students in higher quality environments, and we're going to do everything we can within the law to ensure that happens." 

Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans schools have seen an historic turnaround. Central bureaucracies have shrunk, individual schools have more autonomy (and responsiblity) than ever, and student test scores and graduation rates are on the rise. Over 90 percent of students attend publicly funded charters, the highest percentage of any major urban school district in the country.

Dobard likens the emphasis on smaller, more responsive schools to swift boats versus giant ships. "We're able to change directions nimbly and quickly. Traditional schools have been like luxury liners. If you want to turn that thing around, it takes forever and a day."

Runs about six minutes.

Produced by Todd Krainin. Hosted by Katherine Mangu-Ward. Cameras by Jim Epstein and Krainin.

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