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Almost-All-Charter New Orleans: Not “A Better Way to Run Schools.

July 19, 2018

On July 15, 2018, New York Times columnist David Leohardt posted an opinion piece entitled, “A Better way to Run Schools,” in which he features post-Katrina, almost-all-charter New Orleans schools as a model of the “power of giving more freedom to teachers and principals — and then holding them accountable for their performance.” Sounds great, doesn’t it—the power of school choice at work? The people in charge of this bright spot on the charter-conversion landscape, with all state-takeover schools (now charter schools) returning to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), and, by extension, “accountable to the city’s residents,” as Leonhardt notes.

But there is more to the New Orleans school takeover story, and it certainly is not a story of community empowerment, or even success. Indeed, the original state takeover of New Orleans schools intentionally blindsided the New Orleans community at a moment when the city was in crisis—an opportune moment for those at the state level to impose their wills on the Katrina-whipped New Orleans community.

As one weighs Leonhardt’s narrative of “teacher and principal freedom,” one must understand that not all of New Orleans was critically damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Some New Orleans neighborhoods are built on ridges, and these neighborhoods, schools included, incurred minimal damage from Katrina. Thus, residents were able to return to these neighborhoods in the days following the storm, to school buildings that needed minimal attention, and these parents and students expected to return to their schools. In a report I wrote on the issue, published July 6, 2018, by the Network of Public Education (NPE), I discuss the situation of two schools in particular, Thurgood Marshall Middle School and John McDonogh Senior High School, and how the state led community members on about restoring their community schools even as the state was already planning to replace these schools with charter schools (Marshall) or hand the local schools over to a charter operator who lives 1,000 miles away and who bailed on the project two years later (McDonogh). From my report (end notes removed):


No New Orleans charter school has an elected school board, making school choice something that is done to a community. [State superintendent Cecil] Picard had the choice. The New Orleans community did not, though it tried. For example, Thurgood Marshall Middle School parents and students expected their school to reopen pretty quickly after the storm since the facility received minimal damage. The state did reopen Marshall—as a home for two new charter schools. Marshall parents and students were stunned. Amid excuses for why the charters needed the building and promises that the decision was only temporary to relocate the original Marshall school, Marshall students were moved to an unsound facility, one lacking in supplies and even proper overhead shelter, and with no seasoned teachers to teach them. All replacement teachers were first-year teachers that the Marshall principal had no say in hiring.

The state was in control, not the community.

The promise to return Marshall to its original building continued—for a while. In 2008—after Marshall parents and students had been strung along for three years—the state decided to close Marshall in favor of opening another charter school. Appeals to the state board resulted in the sense that replacing Marshall with a charter school was the state’s plan all along.

There are a number of stories like Marshall’s, in which the New Orleans (black) community returned and expected to regain its schools only to have those schools hijacked by a state that fully intended to push student and parent concerns aside in favor of top-down, thorough, charter-school takeover of all state-run New Orleans public schools. Let us consider a second example, that of John McDonogh High, which was supposed to be renovated by Los Angeles charter operator, Steve Barr—and which languished for two years before Barr bailed on the project.

Barr—who resides 1,900 miles away from the school he promised to restore than forsook—serves as a prime example of how the New Orleans community is being exploited and silenced and how those who assume control over community schools are able to toss their promises into the trash without a second thought—and without any repercussions for their fickleness.

As for the accountability of New Orleans charter schools, consider the fraud attendant to post-Katrina New Orleans schools, also excerpted from my report (end notes removed):

[Paul] Vallas was RSD superintendent from 2007 to 2011. During his time overseeing RSD (Recovery School District), the Louisiana legislative auditor cited RSD for numerous issues of fiscal mismanagement across multiple years, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in missing or stolen property, overpayments to RSD employees, inaccurate record keeping of RSD hires and terminations, and failure to complete certifications for the expenditure of federal monies. A 2013 audit of modular campus construction for the period of January 2007 to September 2009 identified $6.1M in “questionable payments for services beyond the scope of firms’ contracts, materials that were never provided, and unreasonably high rates,” including one firm charging $110 apiece to drill 180 four-inch holes, estimated to take less than 30 seconds per hole.

The corruption in soon-to-be all-charter RSD did not stop with the likes of Vallas. Since each charter could function as its own local education agency (LEA) (it is possible for a charter management operator, or CMO, to run more than one charter), and since the public is completely removed from the charter board process, then the potential for fraudulent practices at those “autonomous” charter schools is magnified as compared to what might occur under the direction of a single elected school board.

In May 2015, the Center for Popular Democracy and the Coalition for Community Schools published a report on Louisiana charter school fraud and academic failure, including the followingfraud at eight New Orleans charter schools across a four-year period (2010 – 2014) totaling more than $1M. Fraudulent actions included a retroactive salary increase mislabeled as merit pay; excessive merit pay; nepotism; theft of school funds via cash withdrawals; excessive pay advances; use of school funds to purchase airline travel and hotel for family; an undocumented lunch for 48 people; purchased made with no evidence of competitive bidding; writing school checks to the charter operator’s own nonprofit; embezzlement; check forging; debit card theft; ineligible employee participation in teacher pension fund, and failing to enroll required employees in teacher pension fund.

This is not accountability. This is exploitation, and constant and continued exploitation, at that.

But let’s close by turning attention toward New Orleans almost-all-charter academics. In his op-ed, Leonhard references Doug Harris’ Education Research Alliance and a report by that alliance showing as Leonhardt notes, “test-score gains are translating into real changes in students’ lives. High-school graduation, college attendance and college graduation have all risen.” This, of course, begs the question of who is making it to ninth grade and who is auditing the grading and enrollment procedures (including K12 un-enrollment coding that avoids counting the unenrolled as dropouts) at those autonomous charter schools, which also exercise autonomy that often enough leads to fiscal fraud. But let us set that aside for a moment and add information from another ERA study, published on March 26, 2015, in which principals admitted gaming the selection process. From the study:

School leaders defined competition as competition for students and the government funding that comes with them. Their comments in this regard included, “Every kid is money,” “Enrollment runs the budget; the budget runs the enrollment,” and “We all want our [student] numbers up so we can get more money, more funding.”

One-third of schools in the study reported using selection strategies. These schools used a combination of targeted marketing and unofficial referrals in order to fill seats with more desirable students. Some schools chose not to declare open seats, preferring to have vacant seats rather than attract students who might lower school test scores. The combined pressure to enroll a greater number of students and raise test scores to meet state targets seems to have created perverse incentives, encouraging the practice of screening and selecting students.

One-third (10 of 30) of schools selected or excluded students by, for example, counseling students who were not thought to be a good fit to transfer to another school, holding invitation-only events to advertise the school, or not reporting open seats. This number included five OPSB schools and five RSD schools.

Again, this is not accountability. It is exploitation. And the exploitation continues if one considers racial composition of New Orleans’ A-B-graded schools versus its D-F-graded schools (note that 40 percent of Ne Orleans almost-all-charter schools are still D-F 12 years post-Katrina). These are the schools where New Orleans’ White students almost exclusively attend:

New Orleans Schools with High Concentrations of White Students in 2017


Total students



% at-risk

2017 grade

New Orleans Center for Creative Arts






Bricolage Academy






New Orleans Military & Maritime Academy






Morris Jeff Community School






Audubon Charter School






International School of Louisiana






Edward Hynes Charter School






Benjamin Franklin High School






Lycee Francais de la Nouvelle-Orleans






Lusher Charter School






Source: Orleans Parish School Board; “% at-risk” is the percentage of students considered at-risk due to factors including low income

Only one D-graded school could be added to this list: Homer Plessy Community School, which enrolled 73 white students out of 251 (29 percent). The remaining 33 out of 85 D-F-graded schools all have majority black populations and negligible white populations, mostly in the single digits, if at all. (See my NPE report for more details.)

New Orleans schools post-Katrina— 2017 post-Katrina— are a case study in racial inequity.

The only way that New Orleans exemplifies “a better way to run schools” is by airbrushing the distasteful crow’s feet of history and indiscriminately swallowing whole those warmed-cookies-with-milk, skewed opinion pieces like Leonhardt’s.

cookie crumbles


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. IRA SHOR permalink

    Excellent summary. Can you pls consider sending a rejoinder op-ed against Leonhardt to the NYTImes?

  2. Alan J. Singer permalink

    If we drive out half the population and make no provision for the poorest segments to return, school test scores miraculously go up.

    Alan Singer, Director, Secondary Education Social Studies Teaching Learning Technology 290 Hagedorn Hall / 119 Hofstra University / Hempstead, NY 11549 (P) 516-463-5853 (F) 516-463-6196

    Follow Alan on Twitter:

    Blogs, tweets, essays, interviews, and e-blasts present my views and not those of Hofstra University.


  3. Lance Hill permalink

    Hopfully this last ditch effort to redeem charters will backfire and force national researchers to form a consortium to study the New Orleans “Carnival of Reform.” The Trump $10 million payment to ERA is not a grant, it is hush money to transform four years of flat scores into some kind of triumph.

  4. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Excellent second try to correct the propaganda machine that refuses to acknowledge what happened in New Orleans.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider Teaches David Leonhardt the Reality of the Charter Takeover in New Orleans | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. How to Make New Orleans Market Ed Reform a Success: Hide RSD Failure Inside an OPSB-RSD Data Blend. | deutsch29
  3. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell
  4. Almost-All-Charter New Orleans: Not "A Better Way to Run Schools" - Garn Press
  5. The Waltons and Their Charter-Choice “Inroads”: Making Strategic Purchases | deutsch29

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