The Big Reset: Have Funder-Driven Reforms Improved New Orleans Schools?

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, it provided an unintentional gift for prominent education reform advocates and the funders who support them: the chance to test their ideas on a citywide scale. More than 10 years and tens of millions of dollars later, a growing body of research-based evidence suggests mixed results.

By most conventional measures of educational success, the news is good. Student test scores and graduation rates have increased, and many studies suggest the reforms enacted after Katrina are largely responsible. However, less quantifiable measures, such as parent and community engagement, tell a different story. Plus, the independence of the research itself has been questioned in some quarters.

In 2005, Katrina not only wreaked havoc on the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, it virtually wiped out the New Orleans public school system. At the time, New Orleans public schools were among the lowest-performing in the nation. In addition, the school district itself had become almost synonymous with mismanagement and corruption.

After the storm destroyed all but a handful of the district’s schools, the state placed nearly all of New Orleans’ schools under the control of the state-created Recovery School District (RSD), the entity established previously to take over the state’s lowest-performing schools. Under pressure to reopen schools as quickly as possible, RSD turned the operations of most schools over to charter management organizations to operate the schools as charters. The school board in Orleans Parish, meanwhile, fired nearly all of the district’s employees.

In came the charter operators, education reformers, and reform-minded funders. For these groups, the storm-induced “reset” of New Orleans public education handed them an historic opportunity to show the entire country that their brand of K-12 reform provided the answers to improve public schooling, especially in poor urban areas. This ushered in a wave of market-oriented reforms, such as expanded school choice, greater autonomy for charter schools, and a reliance on nonprofits such as Teach for America (TFA) and the New Teacher Project as sources of new teachers.

Over 10 years later, more than 90 percent of New Orleans’ school children attend a charter school, by far the highest charter enrollment rate in the nation. Detroit, where 55 percent of students are enrolled in charters, is a distant second.

Funders supporting the changes in New Orleans are among the most prominent education reform advocates in the country, especially those who favor market-oriented reforms such as charter schools and new teacher preparation pipelines. Funders who bankrolled the changes in the Big Easy include the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. These and other funders have poured millions into the growth of charter schools in New Orleans.

Whether these efforts have borne fruit in terms of student success has important implications, not only for New Orleans but for the entire K-12 landscape, as some of these funders have actively funded similar reforms in other cities and states and hope to take these changes wider. Broad, for example, wants to expand charter schools in Los Angeles. Walton is the most enthusiastic funder of the charter school movement and announced a commitment to spend $1 billion over the next five years to grow new charter schools and help existing ones expand. Walton, Arnold, and Fisher are among the most prominent supporters of Teach For America.

Many studies on the outcomes of the New Orleans reforms have come from the Tulane University-based Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, led by Tulane economist Douglas N. Harris. The latest study by Harris and his team, released in February of this year, suggests that positive changes have occurred over time. The changes were small at first, but appear to have increased over time as the reforms implemented after the hurricane took hold.

The study also addresses the question of whether the increases in student achievement are the result of the reforms themselves, other factors such as a change in pre- and post-Katrina demographics, or a combination of these. Harris and his team noted that the shutdown of New Orleans’ largest public housing projects could have resulted in fewer low-income students, thus changing the composition of the student enrollment. In addition, improved achievement could reflect the influence of schools the students attended elsewhere before returning to New Orleans.

While not discounting these entirely, the study concludes that these and other factors unrelated to the reforms had limited impact at best and that most of the gains can be attributed to the reforms themselves. The alliance’s work compared New Orleans students with those from other school districts affected by the hurricane and found that test scores in the former increased significantly relative to the latter.

Skeptics, however, may caution those who trumpet these findings to “follow the money.” One of the biggest funders of the Education Research Alliance is the Arnold Foundation, which has backed the pro-charter New Schools for New Orleans and other pro-charter reforms in the Big Easy. This space reported in 2015 that Arnold awarded the alliance $3 million for the specific purpose of evaluating the impact of philanthropic-led reforms to New Orleans public education. 

Other studies have also shown positive results similar to those found by the Education Research Alliance. The news, however, is not all good. While a growing number of students are passing state standardized tests and graduating from high school, other studies have found that ACT scores in the Big Easy averaged only 16.4 in 2014, well short of 21, which ACT considers the benchmark for college readiness.

Additional concerns have lingered, as well. Charter schools — not only in New Orleans but nationwide — have been criticized for providing a lack of adequate resources for special education students and English Language Learners.

Another concern centers on a perceived lack of transparency in the open enrollment process used in New Orleans charter schools. The Education Research Alliance’s own work raised issues of questionable enrollment practices, finding that at least one-third of schools that were studied engaged in “creaming,” the practice of selecting students considered most likely to be successful and counseling out others, or not advertising open seats in schools as a way of limiting the types of students who enroll. Such practices benefit higher-achieving students and the parents who are the most engaged in their children’s education.

Parent and community engagement is another area in which critics claim the reforms backed by pro-charter groups and funders have fallen short. The widespread firing of teachers — many of them African-American women with many years of classroom experience — did not sit well with many in the community. Their replacement by younger, often white, TFA interns did little to soothe tensions. Others complain that parents and communities have scant voice in the overhaul of public schools in New Orleans.

This uncovers a persistent issue that surrounds philanthropy in public education. In contrast to government-funded work, philanthropy does not require public input and approval. Philanthropic priorities are set by wealthy donors and boards of directors, often in places far removed from the areas they attempt to serve. These concerns about a lack of public input should not be dismissed out of hand. A lack of public engagement, after all, was one factor that doomed the funder-driven reform project in Newark.

Do the gains in New Orleans vindicate what school choice and pro-charter advocates have been saying? Do they provide a model for the nation? Not so fast, the Education Research Alliance cautions. Its latest study is quick to point out that the population served and the intensity with which the reforms were implemented are important considerations. The reforms targeted a low-income, mostly African American population with some of the lowest academic performance in the nation. In addition, the reforms were implemented with a nationwide outpouring of support that included a large supply of ambitious, talented young teachers. Scaling these reforms to the state or national level would be far more challenging.

A lesson here for funders is to manage their own expectations if similar reforms implemented more broadly in multiple cities and states do not show the kinds of results we have seen in New Orleans.