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Does It Take A Katrina-Like Disaster For A Large Charter School Shift?


After Katrina, New Orleans not only needed entire neighborhoods rebuilt.  Its schools underwent a complete makeover too.  Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. helped usher in a change where 85 percent of New Orleans students now attend charter schools. Charters use mostly public funds but are privately run, with fewer government strings.  Kingsland talked to Chamber of Commerce members in Dallas.

  Kingsland says his $10 million non-profit organization  is like a philanthropy that helps launch charter schools. Once established, he says, they’re on their own for funding, teachers, and operations. He says the city’s schools, and students, were struggling. Then Katrina forced the makeover.  

“The takeaway of New Orleans is not that we’ve figured out the right curriculum or we’ve figured out how to evaluate teachers, but we’ve restructured the role of governance. And government has become an overseer regulator.  I think if you get the governance level right, where government regulates and educators operate their own schools, over time you can build a more dynamic system.”

New Orleans educates fewer than 50,000 students. DISD, with more than three times that number, has ten percent in charter schools. The district runs a charter of its own.  Kingsland says no matter how good some big city schools are – and DISD boasts some of the nation’s best – big district bureaucracy makes it tough to improve its schools that still struggle.

“It doesn’t take a hurricane to make this kind of change. That adults themselves could rally around a vision and make the change. I don’t’ deny the incredible political difficulties of doing this but Politicians and citizens and communities have made great change before and they can do it again.”

Kingsland warns charters aren’t immune from big city school problems. He says they too can suffer from bad management, teachers or low funding. And the jury’s still out on the long term success of charters in New Orleans. But he says things are getting better, and graduation rates are up from 50 percent to 65 to 75 percent. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.