In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans laid off every public school teacher, resisted reconstructing the teachers union, and handed a majority of the school system over to the Recovery School District.
The RSD, which was established in 2003, is a special school district run by the Louisiana Department of Education that intervenes in the management of chronically low-performing schools.
The RSD has 80 schools, including charter schools in which 80 percent of New Orleans' students are enrolled. Charter schools receive public funding but are not constrained by a government-sanctioned curriculum or standards.
The gamble appears to be paying off.
"Nobody would have said New Orleans. Corrupt. Inefficient. Everybody had given up on it. It has been far and away the best city in terms of school improvement," Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, told Newsmax.
Graduation rates are now higher in New Orleans than in the rest of Louisiana, which the charter school movement sees as "possibly the most successful, sustained reform activity in public education in the past two decades," Richmond said.
Richmond says charters are not the only solution, but one of the ways to address the reality that 1.3 million children do not graduate from high school every year.
According to a report issued by Tulane University's Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public School Initiatives, the growth of charter schools has yielded positive results, with the ACT scores of New Orleans students improving at a faster rate than state and national averages.
The 2012 average ACT composite score for all public schools in New Orleans was 18.2, a 0.2 point increase from 2011. Comparatively, the state average ACT composite score, which includes public and private schools, increased 0.1 points to 20.3, and the national average remained the same at 21.1, the report notes
During the 2012-13 school year, 90 public schools in New Orleans enrolled nearly 43,000 students with 84 percent of those students attending charter schools, according to the institute. In fact, New Orleans leads the nation
in the percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools.
The ability of charter schools to benefit students in poverty is not isolated to New Orleans.
In a newly released update of its 2009 report, Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) analyzed data from 26 states and the District of Columbia and found that about a third of the charter school students were doing better than their counterparts in traditional public schools. Among students in poverty and English language learners, the results were positive in both math and reading in 2009.
"These positive results have sustained and in fact increased in 2013. Two additional student groups saw improved learning gains at charters between 2009 and 2013: special education students and black students," says the report.
Nationwide, 42 states and the District of Columbia allow the establishment of charter schools and charter-school students now comprise more than 4 percent of the total public school population in the United States, a proportion that continues to grow every year, according to CREDO. There were estimated to be over 6,000 charter schools serving about 2.3 million students in the 2012-2013 school year.
One of the reasons for the success is that charter-school students receive 72 more days of learning in reading and 101 more days in math per school year.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has expanded the number of charter schools operating during his term from 14 when he was elected to 159 charter schools today that educate more than 48,000 students.
The latest education scores, however, show that both charter schools and traditional public schools have failed to serve students well.
According to the New York Daily News,
about 25 percent of the city's charter school students rated proficient in English, compared with 26 percent of traditional public school students.
Reacting to the dismal test scores,
James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said that "we should applaud the impressive scores of highly successful charters," but conceded the poor results "confirm what educators across New York City have known for some time — the majority of our students aren't on track for success in college and beyond."
On the federal level, additional funding for charter schools is caught between competing House and Senate bills.
The No Child Left Behind law, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007. On July 19, the House passed a new version of No Child Left Behind, known as the Student Success Act,
which supports opportunities for parents to enroll children in local magnet and charter schools, and enhances statewide parental engagement.
The bill passed the House by a 221-207 vote with no Democratic support. The legislation differs from a Senate version passed by the Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee.
In responding to the House bill, HELP Chairman Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, stated that reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was a high priority to "ensure access to comprehensive education, teachers who are the most effective, and standards that are world-class," but the House bill "falls short on all these counts."
Republicans on the Senate committee have their own version,
which includes incentives to expand charter schools.
Richmond notes, however, that what happens in Washington, D.C., has little impact on charter schools, so the growth and expansion is likely to continue.
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