Politics Special

New Orleans offers lessons for the Kansas City school district

Updated: 2014-02-09T02:03:08Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

Before she tells her side of the New Orleans schools story and the ideological battles and the culture wars …

Before she and others in this still wounded city share hard-earned wisdom in the great education debate surging to a high tide in Kansas City …

Remember that Karran Harper Royal and her husband and their sons fled New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood ahead of Hurricane Katrina’s muddy water and the destruction of their home in 2005.

Her entire community, including the school at its heart, had to be rebuilt. Then came a hopeful wave of charter schools in New Orleans’ newly risen public school system.

Harper Royal wishes for the best for her elementary-age son, like other parents and children, but worries that people more powerful than her are driving the decisions. So many people with so many ideas.

There is no way to diminish her community’s raw vulnerability, she says.

“Some people thought they’d found solutions,” she said, “but they stripped us of who we are.”

This month, as Missouri education leaders aim their weighty debate at the potential overhaul of Kansas City’s school system, New Orleans has a lot to say about it.

“There are lessons to learn,” said Larry Carter of the United Teachers of New Orleans, “to not have the heartburn we have had.”

The Missouri school board is holding a workshop with Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro and staff Monday to talk through the many ideas in various proposals on how the state should intervene in unaccredited school systems.

Nicastro wants to be ready to propose a plan Feb. 18 at the regular state board meeting.

The most radical proposal on the table — the CEE-Trust plan commissioned by the state with Nicastro’s support — cites New Orleans’ reforms as one of its significant inspirations.

No doubt, New Orleans’ gains have come at a cost.

Sixty-five thousand children lost essentially all their schools, and 7,500 teachers and staff — who recently won a lawsuit over wrongful termination — lost their jobs.

The road back has been difficult. The growing system of independent charter schools under Louisiana’s Recovery School District has seen as many schools fail as find their footing.

The new system, as one observer said, came with “brute force” and the politics “were messy.”

What the past eight years have shown is that “running a great school is really hard,” said Michael Stone of New Schools for New Orleans, which is supporting 28 of the more than 100 charter schools in the system.

“And teaching is a difficult job,” he said.

Some of the schools are growing in strength, state report cards show. While many are still among the lowest-performing schools in the state, a 2013 analysis by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that the charter system is having overall positive effects.

It’s all hotly debated, keep in mind.

What’s remarkable about the gains, Stone said, is all the hardship endured by the children who made them.

“The children graduating from high school now were 8 years old (at the time of Katrina) when they saw really terrible stuff,” he said.

The communities around them and the schools rising to serve them struggle against the pressures of poverty and crime in a school system where nine out of 10 students come from families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Stability in the schools has been slow to come for many, but the school system before Katrina had served the community poorly.

“By every academic measure, we were a district in crisis,” Stone said of students performing below grade level. “That environment needs disruption.”


There are widely disparate ways to look at how charter schools came to New Orleans.

Most of the city’s public school families were gone in the wake of Katrina. It was impossible to plan for when they would return and how many would return.

The Orleans Parish School Board schools needed students in them to receive the state’s per-student funding. Charter schools, with federal and private funding behind them, were one way to open schools as communities revived.

Families, many of whom had only the option of a struggling neighborhood school, were promised public school choices — ideally even opportunities to help create schools.

For others, the rush to charter schools seemed opportunistic and unsettling.

Many families were still away from their homes when the Louisiana Legislature opened the way to turn nearly all of New Orleans’ schools over to the state’s Recovery School District.

The appeal to charter school operators “moved away from the democratic process,” said Leigh Dingerson, a consultant to the Annenberg Institute who is critical of the charter school movement in New Orleans. “I’m concerned by the rapid expansion without input from parents and communities.”

The switch to charters also cut a slice through what might have been a more unified mission to rebuild the city, Dingerson argued.

Instead of rallying around the schools in their communities, the system encouraged parents to chase after often limited offerings promised elsewhere, she said.

The implicit message, Dingerson described in her essay, “Unlovely,” was that “we’re not ‘all in this together,’ ” but that “conscientious parents can and should jump ship.”

To the new system’s benefit, extra funding has come by way of federal grants from the Bush and Obama administrations, plus the private investments of organizations and individuals backing New Orleans’ charter experiment.

Jim Randels, a New Orleans teacher since 1985, watches it all as a high school English and writing teacher at two of the few schools still run directly by the Orleans Parish School Board.

As in Kansas City, much of the middle- and upper-class support for education fled the central city schools in New Orleans for suburban and private schools.

“This is a city never invested in public education,” Randels said. “If these same resources had been available before, we’d have done more with it than what has been done with it.”


For each of the past three years, the Kansas City chapter of the training organization Leading Educators has gone on a road trip with its teacher fellows.

They went to nationally recognized schools in Houston. Then Chicago. This past year, they went to New Orleans.

The reason had little to do with how the system is governed, executive director Tom Krebs said, “and everything to do with the quality and density of schools in the high-performing range.”

Leading Educators is tied to charter-supporting organizations but draws its teachers from across public schools, including from Kansas City.

The schools the group visited in New Orleans are flourishing in the charter environment, he said.

Educators work “with more autonomy to make decisions, some accountability with a staff that’s cohesive,” Krebs said. “That’s a dream come true.”

New Orleans’ growth, however, is difficult to measure.

Stone readily agrees that New Orleans schools have a long way to go. Louisiana ranks 49th in the nation in national test performance, and New Orleans’ schools overall still have ground to gain in reaching the average state performance.

The Recovery School District schools’ 2013 performance scores on state report cards averaged in the high D range, though the median was in the low C range.

But interpretations on how much the district performance has grown vary because the state has frequently changed some of its target measures.

The population of the school district also underwent dramatic change, prompting skeptics to claim the numbers are comparing apples to oranges.

Many families did not return. The district’s enrollment dropped by more than a third, from 65,000 to 42,000. The percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches is just as high at it was before Katrina — even slightly higher.

Even so, some, like retired New Orleans educator Raynard Sanders, think that the thousands who didn’t return included many of the poorest and most desperate families who did not have the means.

Backers of the new district “show progress,” he said, “and then they sell (the reform ideas) to Kansas City and Memphis and Detroit.”


There are indeed lessons to be learned from New Orleans, said Ethan Gray, executive director of CEE-Trust and the primary author of its plan.

It’s why he is not proposing charter schools for Kansas City, but schools with charter-like independence that would still operate within a central system.

The central office would take control of what have been problem areas for New Orleans — managing the enrollment process, setting a unified expulsion and suspension policy, ensuring services for special education and English learners.

“There are important design elements … that increase the likelihood that schools would be successful and sustainable,” he said, and “ensure a shared obligation to serve every child.”

The debate in Kansas City already is intense. CEE-Trust’s plan and the others must cross a plain that is littered with lawsuits.

There may be no way to avoid the heartburn.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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