Did Charter Schools Save New Orleans After Katrina?

Today only 38,000 students are enrolled in New Orleans schools, compared with 65,000 in the year before Katrina.

By Naima Ramos-Chapman Aug 31, 2010

Since Hurricane Katrina many public schools were dismantled and turned into private charters. Five years after this terrible storm, education overhaul has thrilled politicians and the media to the extent that some have chosen to call Katrina a "blessing" to the kids of New Orleans. Not only does this sort of congratulatory praise seem like a slap in the face for the thousands who perished in the storm but, as Brentin Mock writes at The Root, it’s also premature to call those charter schools a success.  

In the article, Mock points to the selectivity that’s kept some of city’s neediest displaced children and their parents from returning to the Crescent city. Mock writes:

Today only 38,000 students are enrolled in New Orleans schools, compared with 65,000 in the year before Katrina. You simply cannot make the argument that test scores are improving without figuring in the fact that some 40 percent of students — a lot of them struggling with poverty and disabilities, the kinds of students who might well lower test scores — haven’t come back. One indicator that many poor families won’t be coming back is that, for the first time, New Orleans’ suburbs now have a higher number of low-income families than the city: 92,752 versus 67,861.

As for the growth in test scores often touted by the media as evidence of the charter schools’ cure-all abilities, Mock argued that test scores had been on the rise long before Katrina flooded New Orleans:

Between 2003 and 2005, fourth-grade math results grew by 9 percent. Between 2007 and 2009, those results grew by 9.5 percent. In eighth-grade math, the growth in the percentage of kids scoring above basic levels between 2003 and 2005 was greater than the gains between 2007 and 2009. There has been a slight improvement in eighth-grade English and in math at the high school graduate level, but in both categories, the improvement in test scores builds on progress that was already occurring before the mass chartering of New Orleans.

As Mock concludes, New Orleans needs special-needs-trained teachers now more than ever to care for the hundreds of children who may have survived the storm, but still carry the weight of emotional and mental trauma. It’s unclear whether the city’s love affair with charter schools is equipped to deal with that particular piece of the puzzle.