Post Katrina: Autonomous Charter Schools Prove Successful

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, instituting school choice in New Orleans has helped enliven and rebuild education and has reinforced proof of the effectiveness of charter school management. The study What Effect Did the New Orleans School Reforms Have On Student Achievement, High School Graduation, and College Outcomes? , conducted by Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen, provides an analytical breakdown of post-Katrina education reform and presents insight into the positive effects of school choice in a new light.

Before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans School District operated the same way as any other public district. The educational system revolved around models and standards emanating from the state, but this approach proved faulty as New Orleans Public Schools produced some of the lowest reading and math scores in Louisiana and graduated just 56 percent of its students. After the disastrous storm struck in 2005, the state took control of all the district’s schools and ceded authority to autonomous charter schools.

The study claims that this massive shift in management is “the first time in the last century that the traditional U.S. government-driven system of K-12 schooling has been completely replaced by a market-driven one.” This provides a unique opportunity to study the effects of charter school management. It is common for opponents of school choice to claim that the successes of charter schools are solely due to “skimming” or “cherry-picking” the best students, but this study certainly discredits that idea as charter schools took responsibility for all students in the district and hence every student’s success, or lack of success, is reflected and made accountable for. Specifically, the study found that:

  • “The reforms increased student achievement by 11-16 percentiles (depending on the subject and analysis method).
  • The reforms increased the high school graduation rate by 3-9 percentage points.
  • The reforms increased the college entry rate by 8-15 percentage points.
  • The reforms increased the college persistence rate by 4-7 percentage points.
  • The reforms increased the college graduation rate by 3-5 percentage points.”

Additionally, the study notes that “the reforms also improved all outcomes for disadvantaged students and reduced educational inequities for high school and college measures.”

These metrics are intuitively remarkable; common sense tells us that improvements in areas such as college entry/readiness which generally involve increased standards should counter graduation rates and student achievement. The community is also appreciative– reflected in a recent poll by the Cowen Institute which found that 70 percent of public school New Orleans parents think that charter schools have bettered education. It is undoubtable that the charter schools selected to help rebuild the New Orleans district have demonstrated competent leadership in their efforts to provide the New Orleans community with educational opportunity.