New Orleans Charter Schools LEAP to New Heights

Published October 1, 2007

New achievement test data show charter schools in New Orleans are consistently outperforming their traditional public school counterparts.

The Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) results from spring 2007, released July 20, offered the first meaningful comparison of school performance in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina wiped out the city two years ago.

Louisiana charter schools fared well statewide, with 74 percent of eighth-graders scoring at or above “basic” in English and 76 percent in math. They topped the state averages of 69 percent and 64 percent, respectively.

Across-the-Board Success

According to published reports, New Orleans charter schools did particularly well, besting public schools at every grade level. Of the 20 top-performing schools in the city, 17 were charter schools, according to an August 1 Times-Picayune article.

“It comes as no surprise that when you combine two very powerful forces–freedom and accountability–you get results,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington, DC-based Center for Education Reform, who calls New Orleans’ charter schools Katrina’s “silver lining.”

Before the hurricane, Allen said, “advocates could not get lawmakers to grow charter schools for love or money.” But now, “the freedom from union rules and onerous bureaucracy and the choices that teachers and parents are permitted to make are the driving forces behind the new achievement story in New Orleans.”

Proof of Success

New Orleans schools have undergone dramatic changes since Hurricane Katrina hit the city in August 2005. After the tragedy, the many public schools classified as in “crisis” were taken over by the Recovery School District and converted into charter schools. Currently, 38 charter schools operate in New Orleans, and there are many more in surrounding areas such as Algiers.

Charter schools are public schools run by community-based, nonprofit organizations under a contract called a charter. They are usually exempt from burdensome legislative mandates and hiring regulations. This allows them to experiment with reforms that often result in greater student gains. Schools that don’t meet the objectives of their charters can be shut down.

Some observers have criticized charter schools for being lightly regulated, but others argue more flexibility allows schools to better adapt to students’ needs and motivate them to learn. The LEAP, they say, vindicates this approach.

“Crawling out from under a hurricane and posting these kinds of numbers [on the LEAP] just shows you what parental and community involvement can accomplish,” noted state Rep. Tim Burns (R-Mandeville).

Nimble Schools

Why the success? Burns says it is because “a nimble, motivated organization, like a charter school, can outperform the bureaucratic public system.”

State Rep. Carl Crane (R-Baton Rouge), chairman of the Louisiana House Education Committee, agrees. Crane noted, “Charters have their own boards and their own people making sure their schools are accountable, which ensures decision-making power rests with parents and the community.”

State Sen. Chris Ullo (D-Harvey), who chairs the Louisiana Senate Education Committee, called the initial LEAP scores “encouraging” but argued “it would be premature to draw final conclusions about [charter schools’] comparative performance” from them.

Model Reforms

Ullo warned it is “too early to determine if other school districts should look to the New Orleans charter schools as a model.” But he also noted, “if charter schools continue to outperform traditional public schools, then we need to look carefully at their successful practices and emulate them in classrooms across the state.”

Crane said he hopes the “education community will recognize that the traditional approach isn’t always the best, and that sometimes we have to think out side the box.

“If we’re committed to improving [academic] performance,” Crane added, “then we’ll look at whatever is working as a possible model, no matter where it is in the country.”

Michael Van Winkle ([email protected]) is The Heartland Institute’s legislative specialist for education.

For more information …

“Charter Schools Lead Way on LEAP,” by Darran Simon, The Times-Picayune, August 1, 2007: