So, Have Charters Transformed K-12 in New Orleans? Arnold Seeks the Answer

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, it effectively destroyed the city's troubled public school system. As a result, it created a golden opportunity for education reformers who have long opined that the way to fix America's K-12 public school system is to blow it up and start over.  

Following the storm, Louisiana education authorities placed the city's schools under the oversight of the Recovery School District. Although Orleans Parish retained control over a handful of public schools, charter schools began to dominate the education landscape as families returned to the Big Easy.

After nearly 10 years, not to mention millions of dollars from a who's who of charter school funders, New Orleans has the only all-charter school district in the nation. Now, one of those funders wants to know the long-term effects of this K-12 do-over—and it just awarded $3 million to find the answer.

The big grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation is going to the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University to study the long-term impact of public education policies enacted in the city since Katrina demolished the existing K-12 system. Tulane economist Douglas Harris, who has studied the changes in New Orleans public education over the years, will lead the research team.

In the years prior to Katrina, New Orleans Public Schools were among the lowest performing in the state of Louisiana, if not the nation, and the district was virtually synonymous with mismanagement and corruption. Katrina destroyed more than two-thirds of the city's school facilities. With the flooded city emptied of residents, Orleans Parish school authorities declared the system closed. In response, the state transferred control of the schools to the state-run Recovery School District (RSD).

The years following Katrina have been an experiment in K-12 decentralization, shifting control of schools from a central administration to independent charter school boards and charter management firms. As of the 2014-15 school year, all of the K-12 schools under the RSD umbrella are independent charters. These years have also seen an influx of philanthropic cash from leading foundations. Funders who have supported the growth of charter schools in New Orleans have included the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundationthe Gates Foundationthe Walton Family Foundationthe Fisher Foundation, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF).

For LJAF, bankrolling a study of the impact of New Orleans' experiment continues a long-term commitment this funder has made to education reforms in the city. Over the last few years, the foundation, which is based in nearby Houston, has pumped many millions of dollars into charter schools and education reform groups in the Big Easy. Recipients have included New Schools for New Orleans and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

Its bid to transform schools in New Orleans has been the biggest bet yet by the Arnold Foundation, which is still relatively new and has distinguished itself for taking risks. It's hard to think of many other examples where a funder has poured so much money and energy into improving schools in a single city, using a charter strategy. If research shows that this effort hasn't had a big impact on student achievement when controlling for other variables, it will raise questions about philanthropy's impact on education generally and the role of charters specifically. Of course, it would also be a disappointment to Laura and John Arnold, and their small foundation team. 

This has to be a scary grant for LJAF to make. On the other hand, if the findings are positive, getting hard evidence of success will be a great boost going forward for the foundation, whose K-12 funding has emphasized approaches and innovations with the potential for transformative impact.

Related - Laura and John Arnold Foundation: Grants for Charter Schools