A new guide on Louisiana’s Recovery School District details how to turnaround low-performing public schools based on New Orleans’ successful choice-based, charter model.

Hurricane Katrina hit at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year, destroying 100 of the New Orleans’ 127 public school buildings. (p. 15) At that time the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) ran the state’s worst-performing school district and parents had few school-choice options. (p. 15)

The district was bankrupt, superintendent turnover was high, and the FBI even moved into the OPSB building given its high volume of fraud investigations. (p. 15) Meanwhile, dropout rates at some New Orleans high schools reached 30 percent, and almost 80 percent of students were attending failing schools. (p. 15)

Today, the percentage of students in failing schools has been cut in half to 40 percent. The proportion of students attending failing schools under tougher state standards adopted last year is projected to drop below 5 percent by 2016. (pp. 10 and 13)

New-Orleans Style Education Reform: A Guide for Cities published by New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) describes how Louisiana’s Recovery School District’ achieved this success by creating the country’s first charter-school district.

“Our goal is for New Orleans to be the nation’s first truly excellent urban educational system,” explained Neerav Kingsland, NSNO’s Chief Strategy Officer. “To do that, we’ll need to continue to grow our best charter school operators as well as provide more supports to the mission-driven talent that leads the vast majority of our classrooms and schools.”

Educators, not bureaucrats, are best positioned to find the answers to our nation’s most complicated educational problems,” Guide authors explain. “This is why we believe in autonomy and accountability generally, and charter schools specifically.”

Louisiana adopted legislation in 2003 authorizing a state entity, the Recovery School District (RSD), to take over of failing schools. The RSD’s scope was expanded in 2005 allowing it to take over virtually all New Orleans public schools. (p. 15)

The need for reform had solid, bi-partisan support. “There was a broad spectrum of deep commitment to ensuring public education would be done differently,” explained Sarah Usdin, NSNO founder and CEO of NSNO. “There was no one person who drove what happened here, there were many people taking roles in setting high standards.” (p. 17)

Working with NSNO, formed after Hurricane Katrina to advance education reform, the RSD developed a strategy to convert the lowest-performing quarter of New Orleans public schools to charter schools within five years. (p. 19) The effort is funded by a $28 million federal Investing in Innovation (i3) award, including $5.6 million in private matching funds.

With few resources, students, or teachers left after the hurricane, the OPSB laid off its entire teaching force, effectively disbanding the teachers’ union. (p. 15) Only about 20 percent of the original teaching force returned after taking mandatory basic-skills tests.

The RSD chartered as many schools as possible. Out of more than 40 applications, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) approved only six. Most of the schools operated by the OPSB opted to convert to charter schools, leaving the board with only five public schools to run. The RSD oversaw the remaining public schools. (p. 15)

New Orleans attendance zones were also abolished so parents could choose their children’s schools. (p. 15) Along with veteran New Orleans educators heading up turnaround charter schools, educators from Teach for America and the New Teacher Project flocked to New Orleans.

“In New Orleans, educators had choices about where to work. Most important, they had control over how to work,” explain Guide authors. “Such total freedom existed in no other public education system in the United States.” (p. 15)

Currently more than 80 percent of New Orleans students are enrolled in charter schools, increasing to more than 90 percent by 2014.(pp. 17-18) Less than 10 percent of New Orleans charter schools are managed by distinguished national charter networks such as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network, so management development and improvement is a critical, ongoing focus.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has ranked New Orleans one of the best places for school reform, and Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that nearly three times as many New Orleans charter schools achieve superior academic performance compared to charter schools nationwide. (pp. 17-18)

Between 2005 and 2010, all New Orleans schools reduced dropout rates by half. (pp. 13, 17-18) From 2007 through 2011, RSD student achievement growth improved 25 percent, compared to the state average of just 7 percent. (pp. 13, 17-18) The performance gap between New Orleans African-American students and all of Louisiana was reduced by 100 percent. (pp. 13, 17-18)

“So far New Orleans has gone from an ‘F’ to a ‘C.’ We’ve taken a broken system and replaced it with one where educators drive educational decisions and are then held accountable,” Kingsland said. “The outstanding question is if we can get to an ‘A’.”

Three critical components are needed to succeed, according to the Guide: A strong governance and accountability structure; human capital development, to ensure a consistent supply of high-quality educators, administrators, board members, and entrepreneurs; and charter school development to produce well-managed, innovative schools where talented teachers will thrive and help sustain the long-term performance gains of the system.

“I serve on the board of an organization that runs three public charters in New Orleans and can testify to the importance of a supportive network,” said Kevin Kane, president of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. “NSNO has had the opportunity to witness and participate in a revolutionary experiment with charter schools. The lessons learned need to be shared with others so this movement can continue to grow and succeed. Hopefully, these sorts of studies will give other decision makers around the country the confidence to break away from the traditional public school model.”