NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, charter schools are the new reality of public education in New Orleans.
The majority of public school students will attend charter schools established by a state-run school district created in the aftermath of the storm.
Supporters hail it as a grand experiment and post-disaster deliverance of foundering schools. The charters, which still receive public money, can operate free from the politics and bureaucracy of the local school board and citywide union contracts. Principals have more authority to innovate. Schools that fail to improve -- all public schools are held to the same standards -- can lose their charter.
"Before Katrina, you could see that schools were allowed to stay open even if they failed students for decades," said Patrick Dobard, superintendent of the Recovery School District, or RSD, the state entity that oversees most New Orleans schools.
But critics, including some parents, say the new system has shut down neighborhood schools, while the best schools remain geographically distant for some low-income and minority families. "If you're white, you have a better chance to attend a neighborhood school which you can walk to," says parent Karan Harper Royal, an African-American parent.
An overhaul on such a broad scale would have been unthinkable before Aug. 29, 2005, when levee breaches during Katrina led to catastrophic flooding. About 80 percent of the city was swamped. The Orleans Parish School System was unable to open its 120 schools, which served about 65,000 students.
Amid the chaos, state officials saw an opportunity to seize control of schools from a school system widely viewed as corrupt and inept. Then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the Legislature passed laws effectively ramping up a 2003 program allowing the state to assume control of any school deemed failing under the state accountability system -- most New Orleans public schools at the time.
Now, in a sometimes confusing patchwork of school governance, the RSD oversees 57 schools, all charters; the Orleans Parish School Board oversees 20 schools, most charters as well. A handful of schools are overseen by other state entities.
Charters have taken off around the country, with 1 in 20 students in America attending such a school, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Typically, they supplement an existing system and have been criticized at times for leaving the harder-to-educate students to the traditional schools.
Education experts are closely watching the New Orleans experience because the city has taken charters to a whole new level.
In New Orleans, overall enrollment is 44,700, down about 31 percent from pre-Katrina days, but a higher proportion of students are from families with low incomes.
Progress is measurable but uneven, despite increases in per-pupil spending. According to ratings released in October, only nine schools in the city were failing, down from 78 pre-Katrina.
Still, most charter schools overseen by the RSD rate no better than a "C'' grade in the state accountability system, while a half-dozen schools still run by the school board get an "A." More than half of the RSD's third-through-eighth-grade students have basic "fundamental" knowledge and skill in subjects like reading and math, up from 23 percent seven years ago, according to the state education department. Still, only 12 percent display "mastery" of subject matter.
"Somebody said to me once: 'We went from a disastrous system where very few young people were graduating ready for college, to a mediocre system. And that's a miracle.' Because we had to get off the bottom," said John Ayers, executive director of the Cowen Institute, a Tulane University public education think tank.
RSD schools are open to any child in the city. Some of the Orleans Parish schools are as well, although there may be testing requirements; at least one also reserves some spaces for neighborhood children.
Parents fill out a single application listing their top three choices, regardless of school system. Some schools hold lotteries, when applicants outnumber available seats.
"I'd rather have a neighborhood school," Rosa Hernandez said recently outside a Family Resource Center established to help parents through the selection process. A grandchild attends a school near her home and Hernandez was trying to get another enrolled in that same school. "We waited an hour and a half in there," she said. "They told us we didn't have space for this school year."
A little more than half of New Orleans voters favor the choice system over neighborhood schools, according to a poll released in June by the Cowen Institute.