In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans public schools are being re-invented, but they are not being rebuilt as the kind of centralized public institution most Americans would recognize.
The New Orleans School District had been in financial and academic crisis before Katrina. Then after the hurricane's devastation, the state of Louisiana took over 102 of the 117 Orleans Parish schools, the schools Louisiana had previously ranked as academically failing. The district terminated 7,500 staff in December.
Twenty-one public schools are now operating in New Orleans. Nine under state control are charter schools. Two are independent charter schools. Ten schools have opened under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board, six as charter schools and four as district-operated schools. Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, bragged to USA Today: "New Orleans is likely to be the largest charter-school city in the country."
One can understand the appeal of charter schools in a city where nobody can be sure how many families will return. As long as a community group or university applies to sponsor the school, as required by Louisiana law, and perhaps locate a charter management company to subcontract the operations, one school at a time can hire teachers and establish its curriculum. But the transformation to a bevy of charter schools is not without controversy.
Let me be very clear. The intention here is not to criticize charter schools in concept. Charter schools range in quality depending on each state's regulations and the abilities of each school's leader and staff. But New Orleans is creating something different: a collection of independent schools with neither a unified mission, nor coordinated curricula.
On April 13, when the school superintendent resigned in frustration, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that school board members envision her replacement as, "more of a manager, offering services like transportation or custodial or cafeteria work to charter schools at comparative prices … ."
Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University and chair of the Education Committee of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, told the New York Times that charter schools, "are by no means a long-term solution."
Without a strong district infrastructure, each school's future will be overly dependent on the skills of its principal. Because the charters are being opened one at a time and only as quickly as groups can get their charters approved and establish themselves, some parents returning to the district have been unable to enroll their children. Several groups of parents have filed lawsuits to demand admission.
Although government bureaucracies may be cumbersome, their greatest strength is stability. School districts across Texas welcomed 44,812 children from across the Gulf Coast on short notice last September. More recently, at a mayoral candidates' forum, parent Tracie Washington testified, "Education is a civil right …. When I evacuated to Texas … all I did was walk into a school and say, 'He is a seventh grader.'
"When people return, their children have no guaranteed right to attend school in Orleans Parish."
The Rev. Jan Resseger is minister for public education for the United Church of Christ.