Katrina Destroyed New Orleans’ Schools, But Educational Choice Rebuilt Them iStockPhoto

Nine years ago today New Orleans was devastated when Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast, causing unimaginable harm to a city known for its life, love and personality. That personality, one of resilience, came through over the following months and years as families returned to New Orleans to rebuild. Nowhere has that proven truer than in the city’s school system – one of the unexpected blessings to emerge from the horrors of Katrina.

Before the hurricane, the city’s school system was known across the nation as a wreck. In 2004, for example, the public school graduation rate was 54.4 percent. In other words, a student’s chance to graduate high school in New Orleans was not much greater than a flip of a coin.

There’s no denying the pain Hurricane Katrina caused, but the education revolution provides a reminder that the people of New Orleans are undertaking one of the greatest comebacks in recent American history.”

After the storm, the Recovery School District (RSD), formed in 2003, enacted a historic transformation. It created a new system that offered parents quality options by attracting innovative operators and opening public charter schools. To provide parents with even more choices, in 2008 a bipartisan group of legislators passed a law to offer vouchers to children from low-income families who, by virtue of their zip codes, were assigned to underperforming schools.

Classes are now starting in New Orleans, and this year the district is America’s first all-school choice district, with 43,000 students attending a public charter school and 6,750 low-income students attending a private school of their parents’ choice with the help of a voucher. In New Orleans, at least, school choice has broken the power of the school bureaucracy and allowing parents to take the leading role in their children’s education.

The results speak for themselves. In 2013, the graduation rate for the Recovery School District was 77.6 percent – 23 points higher than before Katrina. Of that number 90% are African-American and 82% low income. The Louisiana Federation for Children notes that “since 2008, the percentage of scholarship students at the basic level and above in third grade English Language Arts has increased 24 percentage points, while math scores have increased by 23 percentage points.”

Unfortunately, despite this overwhelming success, the federal government has attempted to interfere with New Orleans’ educational resurrection every step of the way. I helped fight the Department of Justice’s effort to block the statewide Louisiana Scholarship Program on segregation and civil rights grounds – an effort that was not only misguided but ironic. Scholarship students are 91 percent minority and evidence found that Louisiana’s voucher program actually reduces segregation. Besides, nothing does more to perpetuate inequality and disadvantage than denying minority and low-income children the education they need to compete.

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If a natural disaster jumpstarted New Orleans’ education revolution, it is the schools’ unequivocal success that have made them permanent and popular. According to the Recovery School District, the number of failing schools in New Orleans plummeted from 44% in 2005 to less than 9% in 2013. The percentage of all New Orleans students attending a failing school is 6 percent, down from 65% in 2008. And, as the district noted last fall, “the percentage of RSD students in New Orleans performing at grade level has more than doubled from 2007 to 2013, from 23 percent to 57 percent, making RSD New Orleans the fastest growing district in the state six years running.”

There may be no better measurement of success than the impact school choice has on the lives of children. Ashlee White is one of those children and this past May she received her high school diploma as the salutatorian of Lutheran High School. When Ashlee’s family moved back to New Orleans from Arizona, she attended public school in Metairie. The school lacked structure and as a result, Ashlee’s education suffered.

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“It wasn’t really organized. The other kids were talking … my teachers spent a lot of time trying to get them to behave,” Ashlee says. ”I think the scholarship gave me a great opportunity. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be headed to a great university as salutatorian. I probably would have been looked over and lost in the crowd. I believe if I can stay focused and determined, I can be very successful.”

School choice is growing because there are countless stories just like Ashlee’s. Stories about families that may have lost hope, who returned to a city they loved and who through school choice were given new opportunities. There’s no denying the pain Hurricane Katrina caused, but the education revolution provides a reminder that the people of New Orleans are undertaking one of the greatest comebacks in recent American history.

From the rebirth of New Orleans, there is an obvious lesson for students and parents struggling in underperforming schools across America. As one who has worked for decades with disadvantaged and minority families in Washington, D.C. and across the country, I know how much it means to parents to know that their child gets a quality education and the expanded horizons it brings. New Orleans is showing us how to do just that.

Kevin P. Chavous is Executive Counsel for the American Federation for Children, and a noted attorney, author, and national school reform leader. A former member of the Council of the District of Columbia and a former chairman of D.C.’s Education Committee, Chavous was responsible for enacting numerous education reforms in D.C. Chavous also presides as board chair emeritus for Democrats for Education Reform and is a former chair of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.