Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than just buildings. Left with scarce resources and personnel, local government in New Orleans became weak and ineffective in the aftermath of the flooding. Five years later, the rebuilding of New Orleans is far from complete, but reformers can point to at least one major accomplishment: a new school system built around charter schools and parental choice.
As a recent Newsweek article explains in some detail, Louisiana established the Recovery School District (RSD) to replace the old school system in New Orleans. Eschewing centralized control, RSD officials created a plethora of charter schools throughout the city, offering far more choices to parents than they had pre-Katrina.
Charter schools receive public funding but are allowed to operate without the regulatory burden faced by ordinary public schools. They have more leeway to experiment with different teaching methods, curriculum content, disciplinary procedures, and levels of parental involvement. If enrollment is any indication, New Orleans parents appreciate the choices. Over 60 percent of the city’s students attended a charter school last year.
A rigorous evaluation of charter school impacts has yet to be conducted in New Orleans, but a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education gives us a good idea of how charter schools perform nationally. To ensure a fair evaluation, the report’s authors used a natural experiment: They compared students who attended oversubscribed charter schools through a lottery with students who lost the lottery and were denied entrance. (This method is the “gold standard” for school evaluation.)
The results are unambiguous. By large margins, parents are more satisfied with charter schools—and with the academic and social development of their children who attend—than are public school parents. For example, charter schools were rated “excellent” by 85 percent of parents, while non-charter schools received the “excellent” rating by just 37 percent of parents.
The people of New Orleans are the latest to benefit from an extensive system of charter schools, but it should not take a natural disaster to make that option available. As more states and localities nationwide adopt school choice, the more satisfied parents will be.