Following Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans public schools were in disarray. Thousands of people who had the resources to do so had left New Orleans. No one was watching the store, and the State took over 52 poverty stricken schools. Ten years later, the Louisiana legislature is finalizing a bill to return the Recovery District charters to local control by district school boards. Did the great experiment work?
State takeovers of public schools are often called Recovery School Districts (RSD). Most often, control is wrested from local school boards. Schools are converted to charters which are privately managed. What is this process like?
NPR published an in depth article describing parents’ perceptions of the process. Neighborhood schools were a thing of the past. There is an open enrollment lottery system, but most white and more affluent students attend private schools. Eighty-five percent of the RSD students qualify for free and reduced lunch. The State has put additional funds into RSD schools, but the results are mixed.
DO RSD CHARTER SCHOOLS INCREASE ACHIEVEMENT?
- A CREDO study concludes that one half of charter schools outperform their traditional public schools in New Orleans. It sounds impressive until you realize that the data for the 35,401 students cited break down in a revealing way. Reading scores for students in charters covered five years: 2007-2011. Unless my eyes deceive me, more than half of the students leave charters each year and new students enroll. If students are encouraged to leave, comparisons with traditional public schools who must retain students are not valid. The report does not document when the students entered charter schools; nevertheless, a drop from 6407 to 418 over four years is very dramatic.
STUDENTS ENROLLED IN RSD CHARTER SCHOOLS
- First Year Enrolled: 6407 students
- Second Year Enrolled: 2957
- Third Year Enrolled: 1111
- Fourth Year Enrolled: 418
Other evidence indicates that there has been no magic bullet in New Orleans despite the hype. The RSD graduating class of 2014 included 1151 students and 141 met the goal of 18 on the ACT. Of these, 85 students came from only one school. (Huffington Post) . Clearly, the turnaround had limited impact.
- Controlling for socioeconomic, ESE, ELL and ethnicity, traditional public schools had significantly higher NAEP scores than did charters. Interestingly enough, Florida was one of five states with similar discrepancies in achievement between charters and traditional public schools.
Improvement in RSD schools is measured by higher school grades, but the ratings are manipulated by state officials to increase grades. Thus, the same level of achievement earns a higher grade in subsequent years.
WHAT DO RSD PARENTS THINK?
Education Week reports the results of public opinion polls that are split between those who feel the districts can manage their schools (38%) and those who believe they cannot (32%) once they are returned to local control.
What really matters to parents is reported in a Tulane University study in 2014: What Schools do Families Want and Why? While academics clearly matter, extra curriculars and indirect costs seem at least as important. This is especially true for low-income families. In addition to being more reliant on schools to cover the costs of transportation and child care, these families seem to have weaker preferences for academics.
In a nutshell, lower income parents of high school students are more likely to want their children nearby, and they value football and band programs more than academics. Parents of elementary school age children value having children nearby with siblings attending the same school and the option of free day care more than do higher income parents.
What lessons can one take away from these studies? Converting schools to charters and moving students around a city does little to improve achievement for most schools. It can however, create havoc for low income families. There has to be a better way. Maybe instead of putting all faith in school choice, communities need to consider better housing choices? At least there needs to be a wide ranging discussion of options. School choice is not working.