February 27, 2006

Katrina Gives Dire New Orleans Schools a Fresh Start

By Stuart Grudgings

NEW ORLEANS -- For Pauline Augustine, a good gauge of her three children's education is the stories they bring home every day.

When they were in New Orleans' public schools, the tales were usually about kids fighting. Since they transferred to Samuel J. Green Charter School, she is more likely to hear about the books they've read.

"I know my child will be receiving an education," the 40-year-old said after dropping off her two girls and one boy at the school in the city's uptown district. "I know they'll be getting the basics."

Charter schools like Samuel J. Green are at the forefront of an educational upheaval wrought by Hurricane Katrina that has given New Orleans, previously home to some of the country's worst public schools, a chance to start afresh.

That has also put it at the center of heated national debate over the role of parental choice in schools, with some seeing post-Katrina changes as a move to shift education policy to the right and further undermine struggling public schools.

But for many New Orleans residents almost anything is better than the corruption-ridden, underperforming public school system that had long ago pushed middle-class, mostly white parents into paying for private education, deepening the city's racial divide.

Public school students regularly had to bring their own supplies to school, from writing paper to toilet paper. The school system was on the brink of financial collapse and struggled to even meet its payroll. Two dozen school board employees were indicted in 2004 for fraud and theft after the FBI began looking into its operations.

"We think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard told Reuters of the chance to revamp the New Orleans schools. "I call it the silver lining in the storm cloud."


Picard oversaw a state takeover of 107 of the city's 128 public schools after the storm left many wrecked and deserted. Of the 20 city schools that have reopened, all but three are charter schools -- state-funded but independent schools that have greater teaching and funding autonomy than traditional schools.

Charter schools have seen explosive growth in recent years, now making up 4 percent of all U.S. public schools, with many parents and educators seeing them as an escape from the stifling bureaucracy and creaking infrastructure of conventional public schools.

Critics say they divert much-needed resources from the public system and that their freedom does not necessarily mean better management or education.

Studies into their effectiveness have shown mixed results, with one U.S. Department of Education report in 2004 finding that charter schools in five states were less likely than conventional schools to meet performance goals.

In New Orleans, some returning parents have been shocked to find that their neighborhood schools are not reopening, forcing their children to either commute across town or miss school.

"Not enough schools are being reopened and kids are being denied access," said Joe DeRose, spokesman for The United Teachers of New Orleans, a teachers union which has filed a suit against the state accusing it of failing to open enough schools.

He said that some newly set up charter schools were trying to save money by hiring unqualified teachers and capping salaries at low levels. The state fired about 4,500 teachers in the wake of Katrina, telling them to apply for new jobs as schools reopen.

DeRose says the state should focus on addressing the chronic underfunding of the conventional public system. But the pitiful condition of the city's public schools seems to have shifted the political momentum firmly behind charter schools.

"There was too much lethargy where nothing major was being done to help those poor kids and now they will create better schools," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington.

"You just wish you could get the same opportunity in a lot of other poor schools."


The city's school population has shrunk to about 9,500 from 65,000 before the storm but is expected to rebound to 25,000 by the start of the next school year in the autumn as displaced families return.

At Samuel J. Green, student numbers have doubled from 115 since it reopened on January 9 as families have come back and find their old public schools still closed.

The school, labeled underperforming and taken over by the state education department in 2005, had only been a charter school for two weeks before Katrina hit. Responding to strong demand from returning families, it plans to add three kindergarten classes this semester.

Principal Tony Recasner, a psychologist who has used the charter freedom to create a timetable that focuses on just one academic subject a day, said students coming out of the old public school system were on average two years behind.

"What critics fail to realize is that it takes a long time to create a high-quality learning environment for kids who have been poorly educated," he said.

The need for charter schools to take responsibility for services once provided by the school boards, such as food and transport, is an extra burden that some new schools could find "overwhelming," Recasner warned.

For Augustine, though, the longer commute she now faces every day to bring her children to the school is worth it.

"It was hitting me in the pocket," she said of the days when she had to buy school supplies for her kids. "That's the difference -- the charter has the resources."