New Orleans public schools have made great strides in the eight years since the state took over most of them due to consistently low academic performance and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
But several challenges still remain for the decentralized school district, according to an August report from the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University.
In 2005, the state of Louisiana took over and chartered most New Orleans schools—many of which were failing—after the hurricane destroyed 80 percent of public school buildings. The Cowen Institute, launched in March 2007, annually assesses the impact of education reforms on New Orleans youth, families and community.
The 87 schools within the city are now governed by one of three entities: the state-run Recovery School District, the Orleans Parish School Board or nonprofit charter operators. It remains the only decentralized district in the United States. Some 91 percent of the nearly 44,800 public school students attended charter schools last year—the highest percentage in any U.S. urban district.
The positive results in 2013-14 include a new single-application system for all public schools. In May, the Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School Board signed a first-time cooperative agreement, which created a citywide “exceptional needs fund” to help schools provide programs for students at increased risk of dropping out due to disabilities, chronic absences or criminal histories.
While academic achievement generally continues to improve, it still lags behind most other districts in the state: Only 19 percent of New Orleans public school students have shown mastery of subject matter, according to state test scores.
Citywide busing that allows students to attend schools in any neighborhood may be helpful for parents, the report notes, but has forced the city’s schools to spend 21 percent more on transportation than the average Louisiana school.
And political divisions at the local and state levels has hurt public education, the authors of the most recent Cowen report say. “The search for a permanent superintendent to lead the Orleans Parish School Board has stalled for a second year in a row,” due in part to infighting, the report states.
“While debates rightly persist about particular aspects of the reform movement, academic performance has improved and students have better choices than they did before Hurricane Katrina,” the report states. “Ensuring continued academic growth and equal opportunities for all students will require strong leadership.”