MICHEL MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. As schools across the country prepare to shut down for the summer, we decided to take a closer look at a school district where the last traditional public schools are closing forever. In Louisiana state-run Recovery School District, the last five remained traditional public schools will stop operating at the end of this year. And when that happens, the district will become the first all-charter system in the country. Policymakers are watching this closely. While charter school supporters point to better test scores and higher graduation rates, others say this move is fraught with the potential to leave the most vulnerable students behind. So we wanted to hear more about what this means for New Orleans and how it might influence debates about education around the country. So we've called in Jessica Williams. She's an education reporter for The Lens. That's a nonprofit organization in New Orleans. Jessica, thanks so much for joining us.
JESSICA WILLIAMS: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: Also with us for additional perspective is Edward Cremata. He's senior research analyst at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes - or CREDO. That's at Stanford University. And the center has done extensive research on charter schools around the country. Mr. Cremata, welcome to you as well. Thanks for joining us.
EDWARD CREMATA: Well, it's nice to be here.
MARTIN: So, Jessica, take us back for a minute. The big push to charter schools began after Hurricane Katrina as I understand it. Wasn't the plan always to move to an all charter system after that, or did that kind of happen organically?
WILLIAMS: I would say that it was in the initial outset, it was the plan to move this beyond a state-run initiative and have outside organizations come in and really do what they knew how to do best. The folks closest to the school to really come in and be able to turn around those schools, and really bring them to a place academically where they should be. So you had a state superintendent at the time who said that he did not want to be running schools long-term. Every superintendent that's come in since then has said we are not in the business of doing this forever. We want to pan this over to the people that know how to do it. So I will say that that was the initial goal.
MARTIN: What was the logic of that? Was it the sense that the schools were just so broken that this was an opportunity to, you know - not to be melodramatic about it - kind of blow it up and start all over?
WILLIAMS: I will say that there were some proponents of the system who do feel that way. I mean, you had a local school system mired in corruption, just abysmal academic performance. You know, we had a school-board president that went to jail for taking bribes. You know, we had a high school valedictorian that couldn't even pass the state exit exam for graduation. You know, these were all the reasons why you had folks saying we need new faces, fresh blood, so to speak, to come in and really revamp public education in the city as we know it because those who were there, they had - they failed. They had decades to get it right, and they didn't do it.
MARTIN: After the crisis of Katrina, a lot of students left the system and people know that story I think, you know, pretty well. A lot of students and families migrated out of the area. But there are just under 45,000 students in the Recovery School District now. So could you just briefly tell us, like, what are the options available to them? What kinds of charter options are there? How does it work?
WILLIAMS: So what you do when you're a new parent and you're looking for a new school for your child, you have two options - you can go to the Recovery School District and you can apply under the Common Application process, which manages most of the schools in the city. Or, if you want to get into some of the local parish school board schools, you can apply individually. And those processes are more labor-intensive - you have to go to the school, sometimes there are different rules, sometimes the application date may start at a different time than everyone else's starts. So you have to be sort of savvy if you want to navigate it and get your kid into some of those schools. And those schools are typically the ones that are the highest performing. The ones that are not in the Recovery School District.
MARTIN: So Mr. Cremata, let's start with you. What - how does this framework in New Orleans - how does that compare to the charter school systems kind of around the country? Is this fairly typical - the process that Jessica's described, is that kind of fairly typical?
CREMATA: No, New Orleans is definitely an outlier both with respect to the fact that, as you mentioned in the introduction, they are on a path to becoming the first all charter district, where the second highest charter market-share is in Washington, D.C., which is a bit over 40 percent. Also, the administration there is facing some challenges. Having to think in a novel way about what it means when charter schools are not a supplement to the existing traditional public school system, but when charter schools become the system and some of the attended responsibilities associated with that.
MARTIN: So your organization studies educational outcomes as we mentioned. How well do charter school students perform compared to traditional public school students? And how is that reflected in New Orleans?
CREMATA: CREDO has examined the performance of the large majority of the charter sectors in the country. We find nationally a very mixed bag. So we released a national report last year, where we found that although charters have improved since the first time we took a national snapshot in 2009, across the country, about 25 percent of charter schools provide a significantly higher level of academic performance than their local traditional public school alternatives. And another 25 percent performed significantly worse, with the rest in the middle. However, New Orleans, like many urban districts, is a bit of an outlier there. We find in New Orleans that about half the schools, charters, provide significantly greater performance than those students would have otherwise received in a traditional public school and only a handful performed worse. So from a national perspective, New Orleans charter sector is definitely one of the standouts with respect to their quality.
MARTIN: Jessica, is that a view that's widely shared? I mean, is that kind of the word on the street? Often sometimes there are impressions that may or may not be matched by the data, right? So...
MARTIN: So is that - what do people feel about the schools there?
WILLIAMS: Well, the general perception is that the schools are improving, under the recovery school District. They're not as high-performing as the schools under the local school board, which makes sense, since the Recovery School District took the schools from the bottom and are bringing them to a new level. But, you know, since 2008, RSD's district performance score has jumped, you know, by about 50 percentage points. The school district is doing well. You know, whether that is - some folks may have larger sort of ideological debates about charter versus traditional and whether we should even - even though they're doing well - you know, we should still push for a more traditional district. You know, some folks still believe that. But the data definitely does support the idea that they are doing a better job.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about New Orleans creating the nation's first all-charter school system. Our guests are Jessica Williams, education reporter for The Lens in New Orleans. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Edward Cremata of the Center for Research of Education Outcomes - or CREDO - which is at Stanford University. So, Jessica, though, one of the criticisms that you hear of charters in lots of places around the country is that that's - part of the way that they achieve those outcomes is by cherry picking. Either they create mechanisms to be sure that only the most likely to succeed are actually admitted or they have open enrollment or they have kind of an open admissions process, but find a way to get out the kids who are least - you know, more disruptive or less likely to succeed. Have those criticisms been heard in New Orleans and is there any evidence to back any of them up?
WILLIAMS: Most definitely I hear, you know, stories from parents who say that their, you know, kid has some sort of disability. And, you know, when they're on the phone with the charter school leader, they're really excited about getting them to come to the school and then when they show up, they get the word, oh, well, we really we don't have the services to support you. Or, if a child is, has bad behavior at school, they'll quietly sort of pull the parent to the side and say, well, maybe the school down the street is a better option. I have heard those stories. There have also been some criticism of...
MARTIN: Wait, can I just stop you? You're saying...
MARTIN: ...That they've been heard anecdotally. But is there any kind of - I'm not diminishing people's concerns - but is there any evidence to back up the fact that these are policies that are actually implemented, whether they're overt or covert.
WILLIAMS: Not that they are policies, no. But the only policy that I can think of that was most recently criticized was the city's Common Enrollment process, which does - it does not - there are several charter schools that are high-performing that are not members of that enrollment process. In the complainants, in a civil rights complaint that was filed some time ago, alleged that because those schools are not enrolled and because you have to jump through certain hoops to get in, then it does discriminate against students and families who are less - you know, from a lower socio-economic background or who don't have the time to go out to the school and sit-in on the curriculum meeting that's mandatory if you want to get in. That's one policy that you can kind of see that plays out on the ground, that can feed, or provide some proof to some of those claims.
MARTIN: Mr. Cremata, what about that kind of nationally, and in New Orleans if you'd bring your experience of New Orleans to bare here. Nationally, do charter schools tend to have this aura of kind of ways to implement kind of exclusivity as a way to kind of boost their numbers? And do you think that those are fair criticisms, particularly as it attaches to New Orleans?
CREMATA: I am sure that with, you know, more than 6,000 charter schools in the country, that's a legitimate criticism of the behaviors of some of them, specifically in New Orleans. Similarly, when CREDO has visited New Orleans and spoken to folks on the ground there, we've also heard some anecdotal stories that she was talking about.
One of the interesting challenges and opportunities potentially in New Orleans is that as they become the system, there is essentially no dodging of any particular type of student of the charter system at large. And so you're beginning to see the formation of some institutional and systemic responses. The creation, for example, of a special education consortium to ensure that you utilize the economies of scale that you might get in a traditional district to try to best serve the needs of particular students.
Jessica also mentioned the universal enrollment system called OneApp that is sometimes used as a tool to ensure, and try to reduce the, let's say, opportunity for any particular charter to engage in, and/or retain into practices, discipline policies that might actually be used to invite a certain type of student to leave. And the Recovery School District has also implemented suspension and expulsion kind of policies and guidelines to try to minimize the likelihood of those sorts of things happening.
MARTIN: Give me a final thought if you would about, how do you think the New Orleans experience is influencing the rest of the country?
CREMATA: The New Orleans experience was largely made possible by the fact that Hurricane Katrina essentially wiped away the existing traditional public school system. It's very unlikely to see this sort of dramatic change happen. However, there are a lot of places that are looking at this, what might considered a charter restart model. At the heart of what they're doing in New Orleans is the idea that the state is empowered to identify and close the lowest-performing traditional schools and match them with presumably high-quality charter operators. And that is gaining traction around the country.
It has had a substantial amount of success, as both I and Jessica talked about, up to this point. But if you talk to folks in the leadership roles at the department and Recovery School District, the way that they'll phrase it is, you know, they are on a path, and well on a path of taking their schools from an F to a C. The interesting challenge going forward is how you get from a C to an A.
MARTIN: Jessica, what about that?
WILLIAMS: No, I totally agree. I think that's what I'm seeing here as well. You know, every story that we write, it gets re-blogged by so many different folks, particularly when it's about a charter school, or a charter school system, or the charter school system is doing something new and different. All eyes are definitely on New Orleans, and, you know, it has been that way for some time.
I think the charter school leaders that I've talked to, they feel a tremendous pressure as a result of that to make sure that they're doing everything right, to make sure that they're dotting all their I's, crossing all their T's because they know that people are watching them. People are waiting to see if this is going to succeed or fail. And so far, we've had, you know, inklings of success, and the challenge moving forward is to bring it to that next level.
MARTIN: Jessica Williams is education reporter for The Lens in New Orleans. She was kind enough to join us from member station WWNO. Edward Cremata is senior research analyst for the Center for Research on Education Outcomes which is based at Stanford University. He was kind enough to join us from a studio there. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
CREMATA: Thank you.
WILLIAMS: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.