Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans public schools were the worst district in the second-lowest-performing state in the entire U.S. Fully 78 percent of NOLA students attended a school designated as “failing” by state standards. Then the storm wrecked 100 of the city’s 127 schools. Rather than rebuild the dysfunctional and corrupt school district, local leaders decided to instead create the nation’s most complete necklace of charter schools, then let them independently pursue a new set of higher common standards. Decision-making power was decentralized away from the old school-board bureaucracy and transferred to individual principals, teachers, and schoolhouses. Top charter operators from across the country were invited in to set up shop, and more than 40 different entities now operate charters in the city on a competitive basis. At the same time, school performance began to be monitored intensely, with the understanding that new schools given five-year operating charters would be shut down at the end of that period if their students were not succeeding.
This was bold new territory never before explored on a citywide basis, and education-reform donors leapt to help out. It is estimated that philanthropists have poured an average of $20 million per year into New Orleans charter schooling over the past decade. In 2012, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation alone unveiled $40 million of support for high-quality schools and the organizations erecting them in New Orleans. In addition to writing checks, donors have set up oversight and assistance organizations, helped social entrepreneurs plan and build new schools, aided various training and support organizations in coming to the city to support the education upgrade, created a solid voucher program to give poor children access to private schools, and worked to give families as many choices as possible. In 2014, the Recovery School District (which runs all but five of the public schools in New Orleans) closed the last of its conventional schools and became the first in America to shift entirely to charter schools to educate its children. Much work remains to be done, but already the high-school graduation rate has climbed from 54 percent to 80 percent.
- Karl Zinsmeister, From Promising to Proven (The Philanthropy Roundtable, 2014) pp. 16-19