Whose Choice? Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace

Whose Choice? Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace cover
September 30, 2015
Frank Adamson
Channa Cook-Harvey
Linda Darling-Hammond

As charters and other public and private schools of choice have created a new landscape in many urban areas across the country, some districts have adopted the idea of creating “portfolios” of options. Central to the philosophy of a portfolio district is continuous improvement, as lowest-performing schools are transformed or replaced.

New Orleans, Louisiana is distinctive in that it has not only adopted the portfolio district approach, but has moved to a system that is comprised nearly entirely of charter schools. This drastic change occurred on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the city in 2005, costing lives, destroying property, and displacing large numbers of people, most of them low-income people of color. Citywide, this creates an educational environment like no other, featuring multiple superintendents, boards of education, approaches to school admissions and operations, curriculum, instruction, and student discipline. 

Furthermore, Louisiana’s charter school policy is unique from that of other states in that the law explicitly allows some schools to engage in selective enrollment practices that resemble those of private schools. Public charter schools can require minimum grade point averages and standardized test scores, and they can require applicants to have interviews, provide portfolios of work, or submit letters of recommendation to be admitted.

This policy brief and report examine the results of the New Orleans experiment in terms of the experiences of students and families managing their way through a portfolio of charter schools in this unusual context. Among many findings, the research shows that New Orleans reforms have created a set of schools that are highly stratified by race, class, and educational advantage, operating in a hierarchy that provides very different types of schools and to different types of children. While some have choice; others do not: both access and educational quality differ substantially, with the most vulnerable students least likely to experience the stability and supportive environments they need.   

Successful system reform must promote high quality school experiences for all students while safeguarding children’s rights of access to supportive learning opportunities. In the context of a school portfolio, successful reform must also support school improvement in ways that ultimately create schools worth choosing in which all students can enact real choices that serve them well. That system has not yet been created in New Orleans. It is likely that acknowledging the realities of the experiences of the most vulnerable children is a necessary first step in that direction.

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