In New Orleans, home of the most charter schools per child in the country, advertisements for the vast array of available educational options compete for attention with everything from "Lost Pet" fliers to signs for political campaigns. Posters advertising new schools are tacked to telephone poles and plastered on the sides of the city's iconic streetcars. Charter officials have set up booths outside Wal-Mart and gone door-to-door. Last summer, leaders from one school even followed ice-cream trucks around town to recruit children and their parents. And students in school uniforms emblazoned with charter insignia—and slogans—become walking, talking billboards for the places where they learn.
For parents in the new New Orleans, selecting a school is a dizzying process. More than four years after Hurricane Katrina swept away much of the city, parents who return find an almost unrecognizable school system where charters have replaced traditional schools in unprecedented numbers. In the 2009–2010 school year, these privately run, publicly funded hybrids are serving a staggering 61 percent of all students, up from 57 percent in 2008–2009. New Orleans is the first major city in the nation with the majority of its students in charters.
Many traditional schools also have changed to meet the needs of returning families. The entire Orleans Parish district is now "open choice"—students can choose to attend any school in the district and, by law, be provided transportation. This privatized education model has become the centerpiece of the Obama administration's education policy, aimed at closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. This year, $4.3 billion in Race to the Top stimulus funds is available to states that enact reforms tying teacher pay to student achievement and removing caps on the number of charters. This, in turn, has sent state lawmakers scrambling to alter legislation in order to be eligible.
In that context, New Orleans has become the crucible for the charter movement's ultimate failure or success. So far, the numbers show it has been mostly successful. A recent Stanford University study highlighted Louisiana as one of five states where charter schools outperform traditional public schools. Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek reports that in New Orleans, the combined district test scores have risen 24 percent since 2005, when most students attended traditional schools. However, the study, which uses data from 15 states and the District of Columbia, paints a different picture of the charter movement nationally. According to the study, charters performed slightly worse overall than traditional schools and did worse by black and Hispanic students. Charters did do better by impoverished children.
If the free-market argument for charters is to be borne out—that students benefit when schools compete and that the best schools will rise to the top and the rest will shut down for lack of enrollment—the consumers, or parents, need to understand what exactly they're investing in. "I think there's still a lot of confusion about what 'choice' is about," says Aesha Rasheed, director of the New Orleans Parent Network, a nonprofit group that helps parents navigate the balkanized patchwork of charter and noncharter public schools.
A study in August by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa International, a public school advocacy group, found that 64 percent of U.S. adults support the charter push, up from 51 percent a year ago. But more than half of the 1,003 surveyed did not know that charters are public schools.
Filling seats. When Katrina hit, New Orleans schools were known as some of the worst in the country. At that time, according to Orleans Parish School Board reports, 63,000 children were enrolled in a system built for 107,000. When the levees broke in August 2005, enrollment fell to zero, and all but 16 of the 126 school buildings were damaged. Three months later, the state Legislature transferred authority over 112 city schools to a state-run Recovery School District. Certain charters were given the green light to develop without limits. To help, the federal government earmarked nearly $21 million for charter-school development.
Today, the district runs only slightly under its much-reduced capacity, with about 37,000 students. "There is some competition and animosity and a fear that schools are trying to put each other out of business. And that fear is not all false," says Thelma French, an administrator with the Orleans Parish School Board.