Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, causing over $100 billion in property damage. The category 5 storm also took over 1400 lives, making it one of the five deadliest in American history. New Orleans was hit particularly hard when approximately 80 percent of the city flooded after the levees failed to contain surging water levels. Among the countless buildings swept away or ruined were all but a handful of the city’s public schools.
The unimaginable tragedy of Katrina presented a unique opportunity to those tasked with rebuilding its educational system. Prior to the storm, New Orleans’ public schools were among the worst in the country. They comprised the second worst school district in the state of Louisiana, itself ranked 49th in the nation. Overwhelmingly poor and black, its students lagged far behind their wealthier peers in the rest of the state.
Following the storm, the state legislature voted to place 102 of the 117 New Orleans schools in the Recovery School District (RSD), which ultimately became a system of public charters. Instead of traditional public schools were students are assigned based on their street address, parents had a choice of where to enroll their children. The charters were publicly funded so they could not deny anyone admission. But they were also held accountable for the performance of their students.
Controversy over the new approach came almost immediately when thousands of former New Orleans school teachers were not rehired by the charter system. Instead, the schools hired new teachers, many from outside Louisiana including thousands of Teach for America recruits. TFA was founded 20 years ago to encourage bright, energetic college graduates to teach—for at least a couple of years—in underperforming urban schools.
So what happened when New Orleans jettisoned the age-old neighborhood school model and offered parents a choice? In 2007, just 23 percent of New Orleans eighth graders in the RSD scored at or above grade level. In 2014, it was 58 percent, more than double in just 7 years. Graduation rates in New Orleans now exceed the state average, and college enrollment from the RSD schools rose 24 percent last year. The success of the New Orleans public charter system captured the attention of President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who famously called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”
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Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.