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Q&A: 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, charters playing key role in rebuilding failing schools in ur
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NEW ORLEANS Ten years ago, with schools in New Orleans struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana made the fateful decision to pull most of those schools into the existing Recovery School District, whose mission was to take failing schools and turn them into charter schools.

A decade later, 90 percent of New Orleans students attend charters, as ratios of charter schools continue to grow in major urban areas. New Orleans is at the cutting edge, but nationally the impact of charters continue to grow steadily, with 51 percent of Detroit, 44 percent of Washington, D.C., attending charters. Other large charter cities are Flint, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; and Kansas City, Missouri; each of which has more than 35 percent of children in charters.

Nationally, charters are disproportionately an urban and lower-income phenomenon. in 2011, the federal government reported that 36 percent of charter schools had 75 percent or more students on free or reduced lunch, compared to a national average of 23 percent.

Five percent of American children now attend charters, with more than 2.7 million students, a growth rate of more than 70 percent over the past five years, according to the The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The Deseret News checked in with Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the NAPCS, the nation's most prominent charter school advocacy group, for thoughts on the New Orleans charter revolution and the disputed role of charters in rebuilding urban community schools.

The questions and responses were edited for length and clarity.

Lets start with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In response to the disaster, nearly all the public schools in New Orleans became charter schools. The state really seized on Katrina as an opportunity to overhaul what everyone agreed was a failed school system in New Orleans. How has that experiment played out? Has the city made academic progress?

Overall the results have been very positive. The achievement gap between the city and the state has narrowed from 26 points to six points. Passing rates have nearly doubled since 2003, and graduation rates have risen to about 70 percent. But there is still work to be done.

What has New Orleans learned about doing a citywide charter system?

Theyve created a common application system, which allows families to choose the schools they want and a computerized system tells them where they are assigned. So they dont have to shop around for schools and fill out multiple applications. If you dont fill out the form, you are automatically assigned to the best school in your neighborhood.

So theyve done away with lotteries and waiting lists?

Everyone is assigned to a school and most people get their first or second choice. Of course, free-market advocates might contend that this is less than ideal, because part of your goal here is to get families to engage and make the choice and become more strongly connected (to the schools).

Do charter schools tend to undermine neighborhood schools by extracting the most engaged parents, the ones who are most likely to make a difference in the school culture, leaving behind parents who for whatever reason are less involved, and thereby weakening accountability and lowering expectations?

For other cities, where families do have to choose charters and some dont, we argue that if your school is not serving your children, you should have the option to take them somewhere else. And right now, high-income families are making choices everyday by selecting a school in their neighborhood that serves their children, or moving somewhere that has better schools, or paying for private schools. So is it fair to discriminate against low-income families, and confine them to low performing schools that are not making those choices?

What happens to the schools that get left behind?

I believe a rising tide raises all boats. You look at the District of Columbia, where close to 50 percent of students are in public charter schools, the overall quality of the traditional system has improved in tandem. So some of the least engaged families are not leaving, but the quality of the schools are improving over time. And in some cases, charter management organizations have been given these poor performing schools for restructuring. So the charter movement is already directly involved in some of the most challenging schools.

The New Orleans recovery district model created an agency outside traditional school districts, and failing schools would get pulled over into the recovery district, where they would get turned into charters. Is that model happening elsewhere now?

We would welcome that. Tennessee has a program like this. Nevada has just passed a law that creates recovery-like districts that invite CMOs (charter management organizations) in to run these failing schools. What is different about New Orleans is that it started with a recovery district, but then the district took over the entire system. Our sense is that it is better to take over an entire district and turn it all into a choice based system, rather than picking a few schools in a few parts of the state and try isolated chartering. This is not just about reforming the school. Its also about creating a dynamic where there are a lot of schools meeting different needs in the community, and that attracts families from other places, so you are not just dealing with the worst-off students. You get more diversity.

How critical is staffing flexibility to the success of a charter management organization trying to rebuild a failed school?

Its not like you can take the staff of a highly successful CMO and put them in a restructuring school and expect it to work. You need people who are from the community, with some level of experience working with kids who are behind, and also people who are highly committed to restructuring the system. You cant take the staff of a high-end store like Burberry and tell them to go restructure a 7-11 down at the corner. They may have done fine for the company where they were, but the people in that system may not be able to apply their skills in a new environment.

Some critics argue that teacher unions should be part of the charter movement, that unions empower teachers, which makes for a better classroom. Do you think unions are antithetical to charters?

I dont think unions are the reason our schools are not performing, but to the extent that collective bargaining contracts control the hiring practices of all the schools in a district, every time a school wants to make a change they have to negotiate with the union it really slows things down. All things being equal, if you trust the principal, it is really important that he or she be able hire good people and give them more money, instead of one-size-fits-all pay raises. So that kind of freedom you have in the public sector can benefit public schools as well.

How does this effect the esprit de corps of teachers? Do we know anything about how teachers in charter schools feel about their jobs?

Ive looked at broad surveys at the national level, and you dont really find differences in how charter and traditional school teachers feel about their jobs. But when you go into specific communities, in a lot of CMOs they are coming up with professional development and career growth opportunities that make the job attractive to young teachers. So the level of satisfaction in a lot of these organizations is high.
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