Education Secretary Arne Duncan was just in New Orleans, praising to practically the heavens the charter school-dominated school system that was rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina swept through in 2005 and left it in shambles.

It wasn’t the first time he’s waxed poetic about the New Orleans schools; there was, for example, the unfortunate incident last year, when, confusing metaphor with reality, he said, “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better.’ ” Of course he apologized a few days later.

The New Oreans Recovery School District -- where nearly 75 percent of the public schools are charter schools -- has become the focus of a lot of attention in school reform circles based on rising test scores, so it seems worthwhile looking at the success claims of the 38,000-student district.

According to the Lousiana Department of Education in a release last month,, the number of students attending failing schools in New Orleans has dropped from 68 percent in 2004-2005 to just below 18 percent in 2009-2010. The designation of schools is based on standardized test scores.

But a November 2010 report, written by Barbara Ferguson, board chair and attorney for Research on Reforms, a nonprofit foundation, that the district left out 30 percent of its schools in its 2009-10 success record. She wrote that during that year there were 71 schools in the district, 21 of which did not have baseline School Performance Scores.

Meanwhile, the population of New Orleans has changed. According to a report released in February by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, since 2000, five years before Katrina, “the metro area lost 22 percent of children under 18 compared to only 7 percent of all adults.” Another report says that the families slowest to return are low-income minority families, students who are more likely to score lower on standardized tests than white students.

And then there’s the problem of students with special needs who can’t find schools that will enroll them because there aren’t enough schools with special education programs.

In fact, last year the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Loyola University Law Clinic, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Southern Disability Law Center jointly filed a complaint with the state Department of Education charging that the department was violating the U.S. Individuals With Disabilities Education Act by systemically failing to guarantee that students with disabilities received equal access to educational services.

According to the Times-Picayune, Duncan, while in New Orleans last week, called it the most improved in the country and said it could serve as a model for other ailing systems. Let’s hope not.


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