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Lessons From New Orleans’ Post-Katrina Charter School Experiment

When Hurricane Katrina surged through the Gulf of Mexico into Louisiana on August 29, 2005, the 56,000-student public school system here, already crippled by corruption and incompetence, was wiped out. Buildings were suddenly uninhabitable. Over 7,000 employees, many of them homeless, found themselves on “disaster leave without pay” and eventually unemployed.

State authorities and school reformers saw an opportunity born of necessity. Even before the storm, Louisiana officials had set up a special state authority to take over the worst schools in a school system where only half the students earned diplomas. After Katrina, the Louisiana legislature turned over 80 percent of New Orleans’ 126 schools to the Louisiana Recovery School District with a mandate to recreate them as charter schools. A decade later, charters educate over 90 percent of the city’s public school students, the percentage of New Orleans students passing the state’s standardized tests has nearly doubled, to 62 percent, and the district’s graduation rate has climbed to 73 percent – a renaissance aided by millions of dollars in federal and philanthropic funding and instructional reinforcements through Teach for America and other organizations, but impressive improvements nonetheless in a city beset by poverty.