To: Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Re: What you said about New Orleans schools

It was a pleasure talking with you on your recent visit to The Washington Post to speak with journalists from editorial and news about your efforts to reform schools.

One thing I wish we had more time to discuss was New Orleans and the Recovery School District, where about 75 percent of the public schools are charters.

You approvingly noted that it was the fastest-improving school district in Louisiana (in 2011 you called it the most improved school district in the entire country), but we quickly moved on to other subjects — such as the good reasons why you oppose vouchers — and we didn’t talk about the myth and reality of the 38,000-student Recovery School District.

The district is often held up by school reformers as a model for how urban school districts can be reformed. The thinking goes that since the Recovery District is mostly charter, and so much improvement has been made, the charter model makes sense for other districts too.

But the facts tell a different story.

For one thing, for all the claims of success in the Recovery School District, it “remains at or near the bottom in Louisiana,” according to a 2012 report, having received a letter grade of “D” from the state last year. That’s not exactly great success.

Another problem involves the comparisons that people make between New Orleans schools before and after Katrina. A true comparison would be between an apple and an apple, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. The population of New Orleans — and therefore the student population — changed after Katrina.

A report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center showed that from 2000-2011, “the metro area lost 22 percent of children under 18 compared to only 7 percent of all adults.” Another report said that the families who were slowest to return were low-income minority families, whose children are more likely to score lower on standardized tests than white students.

Thus, what actually happened in New Orleans was a statistical purge.

With all of the publicity the Recovery District gets, you’d think it was the only school governing game in town. But it isn’t. The “great” academic achievement in the Recovery District often cited by reformers is actually the combined results from three separate entities that govern different public schools in New Orleans.

Along with the Recovery District itself, other entities that govern some schools in the city are the Orleans Parish School Board — which directly runs traditional public schools and also has charters within its purview — and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

A report released earlier this year by Charles Hatfield, who used to be the director of educational accountability for the Orleans Parish School Board, says:

* 100% of the 15 direct-run Recovery School District schools assigned a letter grade by the state Education Department in 2011-12 received a “D” or “F” as compared to 20% of the 5 Orleans Parish School Board direct-run schools graded.

* 79% of the 42 charter Recovery School District schools assigned a letter grade received a “D” or “F” as compared to 0% of the 11 Orleans Parish School Board charter schools graded in 2011-12.

* Of the Recovery School District students in 2011-12 who attended direct-run schools with letter grades, 100%, or 5,422, attended schools with assigned letter grades of either “D” or “F.”

* Of the Recovery School District students attending charter schools assigned a letter grade, 76%, or 15,040, are attending schools with assigned grades of either “D” or “F.”

“A cursory examination of the RSD schools clearly shows that the general achievement level of the vast majority of RSD schools, as measured by the assigned letter grades, is pathetic at best,” the report said.

And consider that this performance — or lack of it — has come even though charters have freedom to adapt at will and aren’t saddled with union contracts because teachers unions are essentially irrelevant in New Orleans. Why can’t these schools do better after all this time?

There are, too, charges — and a lawsuit against the state Departmentof Education — that charter schools are not serving enough students with special needs, and that some of them set enrollment requirements so that they can kick out students who don’t perform high enough.

Hatfield’s report concludes by saying, “It is rather ridiculous for anyone to claim that New Orleans has become a national leader in education reform and thereby should serve as a national model to other cities.”

Secretary Duncan, it is true that you have said in the past that the charter-dominant district in New Orleans is not necessarily the right model for every city, and that bad charters are part of the problem. But your repeated and enthusiastic support for the charter-centric reforms in New Orleans sends an entirely different message.


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