Katrina’s Silver Lining

Here is Amy Waldman writing in The Atlantic in 2007:

The storm ravaged the city’s architecture and infrastructure, took hundreds of lives, exiled hundreds of thousands of residents. But it also destroyed, or enabled the destruction of, the city’s public-school system—an outcome many New Orleanians saw as deliverance. That system had begun with great promise, in 1841, as one of the first in the Deep South. It had effectively ended, in 2005, in disaster—and not just the natural kind. Its defining characteristics were financial high jinks and low academic performance. On the last state achievement test before Katrina hit, 74 percent of eighth-graders had failed to demonstrate “basic” skills in English/Language Arts, and 70 percent scored below “basic” in math. The Orleans Parish School Board, which ran the city’s schools, was $450 million in debt. Yet these numbers did not begin to capture the day-to-day texture of the schools: when students held a press conference to express their post-Katrina wishes, they asked for textbooks, toilet paper, and teachers who liked them.

…New Orleans, barely a presence in the charter-school movement before the storm, now had a higher proportion of charter schools than any other American city—and unlike most of the country’s 4,000 such schools, these had the backing of the establishment. Most radical of all, the neighborhood school had been banished—parents would have total freedom to choose which school their children would attend, no matter where they lived. Introducing school choice and weakening teachers’ unions had both long been goals of many educational reformers. Circumstance had made New Orleans the laboratory for these ideas. Ben Kleban, a charter-school proponent drawn to New Orleans by this flourishing, called it “the biggest experiment in a system of schools of choice we’ve ever seen.” Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state school board, called it “the most market-driven system in the United States.”

So what are the results? Here is an article from Tuesday’s Times-Picayune:

Standardized test scores improved for the fourth year in a row for students in the state’s Recovery School District, providing more evidence that the radical reforms undertaken after Hurricane Katrina are producing results.

New state data show results in the RSD, a state body that took over most city schools after the 2005 storm, progressed somewhat unevenly, but once again outpaced the rest of Louisiana.

Since 2007, the proportion of students in the district scoring “basic” — essentially at grade level — or better has now more than doubled from 23 percent to 48 percent, rising faster than any other district in the state.

Many problems remain, of course, and educational reform has a way of nearly always disappointing.  I have not crunched the numbers or looked at controls but the gain is impressive and the growth in scores is higher in the RSD region compared to other Louisiana regions.

It’s amazing that getting rid of “neighborhood schools”, i.e. neighborhood monopolies, should be considered a radical reform but it is and I am pleased that the signs are positive.

Bonus Discovery: Treme explained, a guide to the series.


Maybe there are differences in the population of students these schools are drawing from now and that they were drawing from pre Katrina, and that's part of what's driving the improvement.

The data might have been better presented had they included some pre-2007 data for comparison. Maybe a part of the growth in RSD scores is a catch-up-growth effect?

The controls are probably important given the changed demographics noted by Nielsen http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/consumer/five-years-after-katrina-new-orleans-is-older-wealthier-and-less-diverse/

" less diverse (the white non-Hispanic population increased from 25.8 percent to 30.9 percent)"


Clearly the factually correct statement would be MORE diverse. But then, as it has been pointed out by many before, "diversity" is now an euphemism for "non-white". Which the title of the article confirms.

A good way of killing off neighborhood schools for good and helping charter schools would be for people to stop juxtaposing "charter schools" with "public schools". Charter schools are public schools, and since Americans have a very long history of embracing the importance of the public provision of basic education, of course the debate suffers when the discourse challenges that deep institution with a long evolutionary history that is American public schooling. We need to talk about two "public school options", and it needs to be clear: you can have open public schools (charter schools) or you can have monopoly public schools (the current system in most of the country).

"since Americans have a very long history of embracing the importance of the public provision of basic education"

That's narrative. Just sayin'.

(I agree with Dan, I just think all the moderates who accept the public school narrative haven’t really thought about it much. Just because you accept the goal, doesn't mean you must accept when they tell you they are achieving it the right way.)

Yeah, good point, you're doing a good job filtering the data for ammo that fits your "slap everyone into a no-choice, local-monopoly school district and American public schools will one day stop sucking you just have to believe" narrative. Markets can't work for schools, period, you're just being a practical dude, you understand that markets are totally awesome but they just happen not to work in this particular little sector. And that one. And that other one. And all those other ones. And all those other other ones.

JDL makes a good point too.

I don't think it changes the argument for charter schools, but it certainly may be playing a role in the data.

What accounts for the improvements in the other two school districts on the chart?

The RSD also spends about $19,000 per pupil, well above the average. Unless charter schools can start to show these good results with the same (or lower) levels of spending, I won't really be sold on the idea.

Do you have a source for that number?
Yesterday, the NYPOST put New York public school system as the top spender at $18,126 per pupil, with the national average at about $10,500.

It's usually best to compare charter school funding to the public school district it "competes" with - state by state analysis is too heterogeneous.

$18,936 per pupil is the number given for the RSD (http://www.education.com/schoolfinder/us/louisiana/district/recovery-school-district-lde/)
This compares to $6,501 for New Orleans public schools (http://www.city-data.com/us-cities/The-South/New-Orleans-Education-and-Research.html)

This is a trend I've noticed - the charter school success stories you hear about (eg the HCZ, KIPP, SEED) often spend a lot per pupil. You mentioned New York, and you are right that New York schools spend above the national average per pupil, about $16,678 in NYC. But the Harlem Children's Zone spends over $20,000.

Maybe their peer public schools would produce similar results given similar funding? Who knows.

Those NYPOST numbers don't include things like teacher pensions, debt service, and a number of other accounting subtleties.
"Real spending per pupil ranges from a low of nearly $12,000 in the Phoenix area schools to a high of nearly $27,000 in the New York metro area." http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=11432

Also, are the capital and startup costs it fully amortized? I don't know.

Enrollment in New Orleans public schools is just over half what it was before Katrina, cf here. Let's put it bluntly: if you ship the poorest performing students out and close the poorest performing schools do you think the test scores will go up when measured solely in percentages?

Do you have any evidence to support that statement?

If anything I would imagine the people who could pick up and leave after Katrina were the more well off type (financially and educationally), thus leaving the poorer performer's behind. You could even argue that the remaining students created a drag on the measurement.


The poor didn't so much "pick and and leave" if you remember. They were evacuated fairly randomly to large nearby cities in tour buses. The more well off were able to return. The poor were stuck where they got evacuated.

"if you ship the poorest performing students out and close the poorest performing schools do you think the test scores will go up when measured solely in percentages?"

Yes. But that may not be a bad thing. That's kind of what we want to happen (without kids having to leave their homes). It's just that the hurricane forced the issue. And noone (I think) is saying this is the definitive proof. Someone can write an academic paper controlling for survivorship bias and add to the ongoing debate.

Without knowing how the population of students changed, it's impossible to know whether the improved test scores represent any improvement in the quality of the schools. We also don't know how the kids who left the NO school system permanently have fared in other schools, or what effects they have had on those other schools.

If the result of Katrina is that we moved some kids who were failing to get anything out of school from New Orleans to Houston, I'm not so clear on how this helped anything, even if it made New Orleans' numbers look better.

A lot of people in New Orleans moved to places like Houston after Katrina. Don't know how many moved back.

@Schuler and others. Do note that the scores in 2007 when the new system started were just about exactly where they were just prior to Katrina in 2005 so it's not simply a story of people moving out.

It's astounding what can happen in this country when you simply eliminate the union stranglehold on taxpayer money.

And this is why I have hope for the future.

I don't know if LA has teachers unions, but most of the south does not. This article doesn't talk about the two major issues with school choice. Austin, TX is a public school system that basically has two choices. It's led to two pretty major problems.

1) Neighborhood schools help with planning. If anyone can chose which school to go to it makes planning hard, and causes monetary waste. We now have the problem of enough seats for every student in the district, but not where the parents want them to go to school. It's hard to justify opening new schools when there are hundreds of open seats in the less popular schools, and no neighborhood wants to allow their school to be closed down.
2) Traffic. Almost 10,000 kids per day are being transported to other public schools on top of the normal amount of traffic that occurs during rush hour. That's a major infrastructure challenge.

And as other posters have stated, it's not clear if these gains in New Orleans are real, or just the private school effect caused by many poor students not returning to New Orleans.
I'd also be interested in seeing what school sizes were like pre and post Katrina. One of the things suburbs realized a long time ago is that they can compete better with urban schools simply by building schools that are substantially larger. They can fail twice as many kids as a small urban school, but still have better averages.

I meant Austin, TX has school choice. Mistyped there.

Yes, the bad schools will be empty and might even have to close down. But isn't that exactly the point of a creative destruction process? Most dynamic systems do have planning problems but these should be embraced rather than avoided.

I'm not sure about your point regarding larger schools having better scores. Larger schools do have the regression towards the mean effect but that bites both ways; they will just be "more average". The smaller schools will tend to capture the best and also the worst.

My point was that even though you might want to close down the empty schools your electorate might not let you because they're attached to the buildings. A system might provide brilliant results but still be impractical because your electorate won't allow the hard decisions.
"More average" in schools is a "good school". But your correct, since they're doing the average across the school district the size of the schools does not play into the averages.

Jim is right on this one. I work in DC but am from Southern LA, and the scores were not much (if at all) improved from where they were pre-Katrina. As to the demographic shift, I would agree that is something to look at, but the reality in NOLA is that for a substantial proportion of the white population, but especially the wealthy (which is what you are likely to be if you're living in NOLA-proper as a white folk) send their children to private schools, usually ones that are part of the Catholic system; so, I would not be surprised if the racial makeup of the school system were roughly the same as it was before the storm, even if it's only handling about half the students, now.

Whatever the case may be, the old system was, as almost everything government-related in New Orleans (which is/was obscenely corrupt even by Louisiana standards), utterly dysfunctional. The Atlantic article was right: sweeping away the old, corrupt institutions and putting newer ones in place are probably what's contributing greatly to the improvement. No child could've excelled in the system that was there pre-Katrina, and the stats bare that out.

What arguments can those who oppose charter schools present? It does seem so natural that choice and competition being good, that I find it hard to even think of any credible criticism against charter schools. Hope we have some commentators to present the contrarian viewpoint.

I'm a huge defender of public schools, and I think charters are ok. My three main issues:

1) Accountability. At least in Texas the governing bodies have not been able to keep up with the number of schools opening.
2) Transportation. Charter schools make efficiencies in transportation (walking/busing) less feasible. Kids who do not have private transportation can become ghetto-ized into the "bad schools".
3) Cost. Charter schools (at least currently) have not figured out how to fit into the school district system that allows for resource sharing.

Not that any of these aren't fixable. I think 2 is the biggest potential problem since we don't really fix the problem if we create School Choice* (*as long as you have a car).

The way I look at #2 is that in the absence of charter schools everyone gets stuck going to the bad schools. With the charter schools at least those with cars can escape.

In urban areas at least, public transportation ought to alleviate some of the car-only issues.

Yes, but we already have suburbs where "those with cars can escape". Opening additional schools to educate the top 40% doesn't really provide any value to the taxpayer. Charters are incredibly popular for the reasons you cite, however. But we shouldn't confuse popular with solving a problem.

"Opening additional schools to educate the top 40% doesn’t really provide any value to the taxpayer."

Are you sure about that? Not everything that the taxpayer does has to be egalitarian to be beneficial.

It doesn't seem like all the resource sharing, rationalization, and efficiencies are saving much in the up-front costs. But it's not even really about that for me. It's more that they don't seem interested in discussing better ways of doing things.

Off topic, but illustrative example: I was bullied and we could not get the school to do anything other than continually reinforce that if I retaliated I'd get in trouble just like the bully. Decades later, talking to parents that seems to be the same line the schools give. Are they unaware of this brand new bullying thing?

Resource sharing? You mean like letting homeschooled kids play sports? Minor point, but until Public Schools are actually public I have trouble taking them seriously.

Somehow I think you'll have trouble taking them seriously even if they let home-schooled kids play sports. Texas has legislation pending currently allowing private schools to participate in UIL. Perhaps rather than assuming there's some big nefarious plot out to keep you from doing what you want, maybe you should realize that you're just an exception to the rule that the state doesn't have laws to accommodate yet. Then go and try to get the laws passed.


For anyone who's home-schooled, it's not an assumption. It's a real world experience. Obviously it's not the exaggerated "nefarious plot" as you described it but most states are hostile to home-schoolers.

For instances of hoom-schooler/state problems, you can check out: http://www.hslda.org/

@Tim, you're missing the point of Charters. A market based choice could provide the incentive/competition for the publics to improve. If NOLA students are asking for textbooks and TP, we can agree that the public school funds were being misspent.

Competition, not total replacement would be most cost effective.

It's interesting to hear libertarians praise reform efforts led by the state, rather than those by private interests. And considering how the schools are now 97% funded by the state and federal governments as opposed to local government, we might be seeing an increase in funding.

It's a reform effort that reduces government control and increases personal choice. What's not libertarian about that?

Mike, interesting, but how exactly could private interests reform a government system? If the government made drugs legal I'd praise that even though the government has to do it. The government is the only institution that can cede control over the things that the government controls. If you want to call that a government initiative, fine.

There may be some correlation between funding and performance, in the same way that there have to be benefits to beating almost any problem down with a huger sack of money. The questions ares whether it is worth the cost and are there more efficient means. Give me infinite money and I'm sure I'll accomplish SOMETHING. But, this post is not really about the improvements in New Orleans per se, it is about the results of a natural experiment. It's not really something the government did out of much other than necessity.

What is the difference between charter schools and school vouchers?

Charter Schools are essentially public school startups. They're usually regulated a bit differently and stand outside the school district system. School vouchers are allowing reallocating public dollars to private schools. The main issue people have with vouchers is that they allow public monies to be allocated to religious or discriminatory schools.

Just so we are clear, for those keeping score, not allowing parents to use a portion of the their tax money to send their kid to religious school is NOT discriminatory.

(I agree with Tim, I just think all the moderates who accept the public school narrative haven't really thought about it much)

Unless the school does not educate the student to state standards, yes it is discriminatory.

What about the reduced load on the system? If half the students didn't come back, and the schools were insured/funded by FEMA back to something approximating their previous facility levels, 'funding per student' could remain the same even while students are getting the benefit of twice the capital. The same applies to the teaching staff. Either class sizes just halved, or the district got to pick the cream of it's returning teachers.

Check out the comment thread starting with:
Wimivo May 27, 2011 at 8:26 am

What is the difference between charter schools and school vouchers?

Ultimately, there probably won't be any meaningful differences -- when the state provides a voucher it will likely seek impose regulations equivalent to charter schools:


I don't understand why it's so hard to just have a market for kids to not be monopolized to their geographic designation.

I watched an episode of Friday Night Lights that seemed pre-occupied with this. I can't watch TV anymore. Thanks a lot Tyler and Alex!

One issue is that local-monopoly schools make planning and funding simpler--funding is often mainly local property taxes (and it's reasonable for people in Spendthrift County to be unhappy having their high taxes mainly go to providing better schools for the residents of Skinflint County, which has lower taxes and one-room tarpaper shack schools.

But longer-term, I think the problem is all about turf. There are existing institutions with employees, contractors, and constituents. Charters, vouchers, homeschoolers, etc., all potentially challenge those existing institutions, threatening to take funding and students away, and to otherwise destabilize the older institution's long-running arrangements and plans. Even with no ideological motivations, even without the secondary purposes of local schools as community centers and sources of free entertainment and sources of patronage jobs, those existing institutions would fight for their turf. And they do.

sorry big bird, but charters operating in their own county do not have a tax rate advantage over their county public peers.

I live a "spendthrift" county and thanks to "proration" some of my tax dollars get skimmed off and sent to "poor" counties with lower tax rates. This happens in Alabama, so I doubt we're unique.

ROFL! Alex, you are awesome.

I would be happy as a matter of policy of public schools were opened up. I'm also fine with vouchers, but with one very large requirement:
Open access regardless of performance
The cost of educating individuals is not equal and letting schools cherry pick away students with low educational costs and leave behind only students with high educational costs is an unfair standard, but if admissions to charter schools is totally blind (blind to need, race, aptitude, IQ, school performance, etc.), I'm fine with letter parents "choose" and I'm willing to experiment, but I'm just skeptical that performance of charter schools is so much better over time in these circumstances.

Type 5 Charter Schools, which originally had no cap (now all charters in New Orleans do not have caps), and are the largest segment of RSD schools, do not have closed access. Once you've applied, you are entered into a lottery. That is all. Type 1,2,3, and 4 charter schools do have selective acceptance, and can use their personal discretion to decide who to accept. The gains in RSD results are being driven by Type 5 charters, while the gains to OPSB come from both traditional and charter schools, which charter schools appearing to slightly outperform traditional schools (though OPSB traditional and charter schools were historically the best schools pre-Katrina as well).

It seems to me that what's needed there is vouchers that reflect the cost of educating the student. To use an obvious example, a blind student is going to require some accomodations that will cost something to provide. So her voucher ought to be larger, to cover the higher cost of the accomodations. This is not an unsolvable problem. In fact, my understanding is that states often provide extra funding to public schools to cover the added costs of special education for kids that need it.

However, it's also really important to have the school be able to set some limits on this, since part of the goal of school choice is making sure that schools can be rather different from one another. For example, a very small school is going to have a hard time providing some accomodations--the cost of adding bilingual education to a K-8 school with 25 kids per class and one class per grade is going to be really prohibitive--you potentially have to hire nine extra bilingual teachers, or replace some of the existing teachers/aides.

An interesting perspective is to compare traditional schools in New Orleans RSD and OPSB school districts and comparing them to their charter counterparts within the districts. The geographic breakdown is nearly identical, the socio-economic status of the students and neighborhoods are nearly identical, and yet the charter schools (particularly Type 3 and 5 Charter Schools).

The benefit from this analysis is that you get to bypass the bias that exists by the reality that New Orleans shipped off many of its families to never return, and those who did return tended to be property owners, rather than renters or public housing residents. It's a very shoddy comparison to look at pre and post Katrina metrics of result, but you can still compare post-Katrina Charter and Traditional schools and see a difference, especially once you've controlled for teacher quality and poverty rates.

It's also interesting to note that standard claims of students with disability being pushed onto traditional schools have little to no merit for explaining these results.

You don't need destruction to change.

does this mean that the shock doctrine book was right?

I am a mathematician and New Orleans resident, and I have friends involved in the school system, mostly at charter schools. I can report some anecdotal information and personal thoughts:

* Test score gains are real ... the successful charter schools are seeing improvement in their students on a year-to-year basis.
* Not all charter schools have been successful. The gains that are being made are mostly concentrated in about half of the schools. Many of these successful charters are open admission (so they are not improving their scores by simply getting rid of weaker performing students), though a few schools may be engaging in this practice.
* Most dishearteningly, the improvement in test scores at the high school level have not been translating to increased success in college. My take is that the improvement in skills tested on the LEAP tests is real, but it is somewhat artificial. Because the curriculum revolves so strongly around the LEAP test, overall skill appreciation is not nearly as large as what the scores suggest. To me, that is just part of the reality that improvement in a school system is a slow and gradual process. I do see evidence that some small but real improvement is being made, and hopefully the overstated improvement in test scores will result in continued support for the progress being made here.
* Many of the obstacles to education in New Orleans have nothing to do with the monopoly vs charter argument. The cultural and societal barriers that the average urban student faces are enormous. The effects of out-of-wedlock birth, broken families, high incarceration rates of both adults and juveniles, the prevalence of the urban drug economy, the high violence rate, low education level of parents / guardians, the lack of financial security for most urban families, etc. all end up creating obstacles and barriers that are hard to overcome.
* Yes, charter schools are working in New Orleans; yes, more innovation might bring about further improvements. But bringing about real improvement is a much more gradual process than our political system tends to have the patience for. I am unfortunately skeptical that this improvement will be sustained, as I do not see the incentive structure in our political system to reward those in the education system who are making progress. And, in fact, given that I expect further improvements to remain relatively modest, there will be incentives for politicians to frame what's happened here as either a failure or not enough of an improvement.

"An analysis by three demographers of U.S. census data finds New Orleans' black population fell 57% one year after Hurricane Katrina. The "Los Angeles Times" reports the data confirms the disasters disproportionate impact on the citys racial composition. The analysis also found the New Orleaninans displaced to Houston, Texas and other cities were most likely black, uneducated and poor. Those who relocated to the citys suburbs were more likely to be white, educated and well off by contrast. It painted a picture of post-Katrina New Orleans as a city notably whiter, older and less populous than it was during the 2000 census. New Orleans also has fewer children, renters and a more educated population. Nevertheless, New Orleans is still a "majority minority city," with African Americans making up about 58% of the population when census data was taken last year. (Copyright 2007 by Newsroom Solutions/Regional News Service) "

New Orleans has also destroyed several thousand units of public housing since Katrina. Wiki put it this way: "A larger percentage of white residents have returned to their homes than black residents. This has been attributed to an unwillingness of planners to rebuild low-income housing.[13] The Wall Street Journal noted former 10-term Republican senator Rep. Richard H. Baker from Baton Rouge reportedly told lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did", had reflected a lack of concern for the lower income residents.[14] Large areas of the city's public housing has been targeted for demolition, inciting vocal protests from some, including architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff."

The people running New Orleans wanted to expel the people living in the projects, who are 95% black. They had some success. This would inevitably increase test scores. Was this effect as large as the putative effects from charter schools? It's worth checking. I would guess that it accounts for all real change. Massive cheating is also possible, and this being New Orleans,Sodom and Gomorrah on the Missisip, should never be discounted. I would predict that charter schools have little effect one way or the other.

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