Katrina swept away failing school system in New Orleans
Opinion by former California State Senator Gloria Romero in the Orange County Register
On Aug. 29, 2005, the levees broke in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, causing more than $100 billion in damage and almost 2,000 deaths. Katrina was the costliest and third-deadliest hurricane in U.S. history.
President Obama travels to New Orleans this week to commemorate Katrina’s 10th anniversary and the city’s rebuilding.
Amid the rubble and rebuilding efforts, unseen by most Americans was a profound rebuilding of a major American city’s education system. Tragically, it took a hurricane to do this. But out of Katrina’s death and destruction rose one of the greatest transformations ever witnessed in American public education.
A decade later, education reformers highlight the “Katrina effect” in education innovation and reform.
Katrina left most New Orleans schools literally underwater. Most schools remained officially closed for months. Many New Orleans families fled the city to escape the floods and rebuild lives; some never returned. Many students who remained missed months of classes.
Prior to Katrina, reformers knew the Big Easy’s schools were symbolically underwater. Two years before Katrina, the Louisiana Legislature created a statewide Recovery School District to intervene in, and turn around, the state’s low-performing schools. At the time when Katrina struck, five failing schools in New Orleans had already been transformed into charters under the auspices of the RSD.
Following Katrina, the Legislature acted boldly, enacting a transformative measure to expeditiously transfer more than 100 chronically failing New Orleans schools to the RSD. State leaders, confronted by unprecedented natural disaster, chose to not only rebuild, but to boldly reimagine, New Orleans’ schools and acted with urgency.
City schools were closed, and all teachers removed from their posts. Rather than reopening the same failed schools, a comprehensive network of charter schools was authorized and opened. New teachers were hired.
This action led to the innovative “portfolio” system of schools found today in New Orleans, with 92 percent of students attending independent, charter schools.
Undoubtedly, the RSD response to Katrina has become one of the most important education reformations in America. Academic outcomes for public school students in New Orleans have improved significantly in the 10 years since Katrina.
New Orleans in 2005 was the second-lowest-ranked district in one of the lowest-ranked U.S. states. Today, New Orleans students are closing the achievement gap with their peers, graduation rates have dramatically increased accompanied by major boosts in achievement tests, and students are going on to college. Whereas just slightly more than 30 percent of RSD schools were above failing status in 2008, more than 80 percent were in 2014 – a significant turnaround.
No other district has accomplished such sizable improvements in such a short time. It’s nothing less than an education revolution. The storm and its aftermath did what no political authority or education advocate had previously dared to do. It provided the nation a North Star to follow in transforming chronically failing schools.
California leaders, however, have failed to follow that leadership and enact a Golden State version of the Recovery School District to rescue thousands of California schools figuratively underwater. Acting on their own initiative, parents at Anaheim’s Palm Lane School used California’s “parent trigger” law, which I wrote, to attempt to transform their school into a charter. They are being viciously fought by the school district’s leaders intent on operating failing schools.
It shouldn’t take a hurricane to transform failing schools. This week’s Katrina commemoration reminds us that it can be – and has been – done.
Staff opinion columnist Gloria Romero is an education reformer and former Democratic state senator from Los Angeles.
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