New Orleans, Louisiana: Alternative Governance Arrangements

The school system in New Orleans gained national attention following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The hurricane devastated the city and wiped out much of New Orleans’ school facilities, but the process of rebuilding it provided what then-Governor Kathleen Blanco called a “golden opportunity” to remake the entire school system.1 And the city did just that, using chartering as a model to overhaul the system and create improved educational opportunities for its children.

By the 2013–14 school year, 91 percent of students in the New Orleans Parish school district attended a charter school.2 No other district in the country comes close to having such a large percentage of its students in public charter schools. In fact, Detroit City School District, the second-ranked city for percentage of students in charter schools, is a full 36 percentage points behind New Orleans, with 55 percent of its students attending charter schools. Further, in 2014–15, the Recovery School District (RSD) (the state-run district that took over the majority of New Orleans’ schools following the hurricane) became the nation’s first all-charter district.3 Now, a decade later, the school system in New Orleans offers a number of valuable lessons to states and cities considering implementing extraordinary authority districts and/or chartering on a large scale.


Although Hurricane Katrina was a major turning point for the city’s school system, the RSD traces its roots to 2003, two years before the hurricane, when the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) passed Act 9. Act 9 created the nation’s first “extraordinary authority district,” called the Recovery School District (RSD), designed specifically to allow the state to take over and operate persistently low-performing schools.4 The legislation allowed the RSD to operate the schools directly or to contract out their operation to charter school operators.

Following the hurricane, in November 2005, Louisiana legislators approved Act 35, which redefined the threshold by which schools and districts could be deemed failing and increased the state’s power to intervene. With this expanded power, the BESE shifted 114 low-performing Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) schools into the RSD. The OPSB retained control of only 17 schools.5

By the 2013–14 school year, 87 public schools served nearly 45,000 students in New Orleans. Of the 87 schools, 75 were charter schools, 11 were directly-run (five by the RSD and six by the OPSB), and one was independent, under the jurisdiction of the state legislature. The five RSD directly-run charter schools closed in May 2014, leaving the RSD as the first all-charter district in the country.6

School Performance Results

Overall, RSD schools in New Orleans achieved the largest gains statewide on the state’s standardized assessments. And although the district continues to lag the state average, the gap is diminishing. In 2013, the gap between the state average and New Orleans was 12 percentage points, down from 27 percentage points in 2009.7 Further, ACT scores in New Orleans are improving faster than state and national scores, increasing to a current average of 18.2 (compared to a state average of 20.3).

A recent study done by CREDO found that students in New Orleans charter schools are significantly outperforming students in the city’s traditional public schools. Importantly, these schools demonstrate gains for historically underperforming groups of students, including low-income, black, and Hispanic children. Black charter students in New Orleans gain the equivalent of nearly 60 days of additional learning in reading and more than 86 days of additional learning in math compared to their peers attending traditional public schools in New Orleans.8 Hispanic students attending New Orleans charter schools gain approximately 40 days of additional learning in both reading and math over students attending traditional public schools. Further, black students in poverty enrolled in New Orleans charter schools gain about 72 more days of learning in reading and 94 more days of learning in math compared to similar students in traditional public schools.

Challenges and Lessons

As school reformers in New Orleans forged a new system of schools based on the principles of chartering, they encountered a number of unprecedented challenges. Policymakers had to address issues of enrollment; transportation; information dissemination; system-wide accountability including school closures, openings, and replications; and community engagement.

  • Student enrollment: To ensure that all New Orleans families can access all of the city’s school options, the city uses a common enrollment system called OneApp. Families can rank up to eight of their top school choices; an algorithm assigns students to schools. Currently, all but nine of the city’s public schools participate in the common enrollment system.9 Seventeen private schools in Orleans Parish that accept students through the state’s voucher program also participate in OneApp.
  • Transportation: As students apply to and enroll in schools that are increasingly far from their homes, ensuring that students have safe transportation has been an ongoing challenge for the city.10 Currently, the vast majority of public schools provide either yellow bus service or subsidized public transportation passes to students.11 However, this is an expensive service that uses money that would otherwise be used in classrooms. New Orleans School Board President Nolan Marshall Jr. recently said he would like the city to once again centralize transportation planning, however this would require a change in state legislation.10
  • Information dissemination: Having options is not sufficient; families must be informed about their options and empowered to use information about schools to make decisions for their children. In the initial years of the RSD there was significant confusion about school options. Families were not well educated about the kinds of schools their children could attend, what programs were offered, or the timelines for application an enrollment. The city has since remedied this issue. Each year, the New Orleans Parents’ Guide, a community organization that supports the city’s parents in accessing school quality information, publishes the New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools.13 This guide provides families with information about each of the city’s schools, including enrollment and performance data, application and registration processes, available programs, whether or not the school offers transportation, and more, to aid families in choosing a school.
  • System-wide accountability: To ensure that all charter schools are held to high standards and face credible consequences for failing to meet those standards, the state of Louisiana has developed a charter school performance contract for all of its charter schools. These performance contracts ensure transparency in school closure, extension, and renewal decisions and allow for differentiated oversight of persistently high-performing charter schools.14
  • Community engagement: The RSD has struggled with appropriately engaging neighborhoods and communities in the process of turning around existing schools and/or opening new charter schools. Critics argue that the RSD’s process for making decisions about schools ignores long-standing neighborhood traditions, history, and resources.15 The RSD has taken steps to mitigate this tension by creating channels for community members to actively participate in the decision-making process.16

Louisiana serves as a national model of using a statewide, extraordinary authority district and charter schooling to improve the educational options for children across the state and, in particular, in New Orleans. As the city paves this new path forward, it will continue to encounter unprecedented challenges and make mid-course corrections from which other states and cities, following in New Orleans’ footsteps, can learn.

  1. Erik Robelen, “Louisiana Eyes Plan to Let State Control New Orleans Schools,” Education Week, November 4, 2005, accessed February 9, 2015,
  2. “A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter School Communities,” National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (2014): 3, accessed February 9, 2015,
  3. Alan Greenblatt, “New Orleans District Moves To An All-Charter System,” National Public Radio, May 30, 2014, accessed February 9, 2015,
  4. “Extraordinary Authority Districts.” Public Impact (2014): 10, accessed February 9, 2015,
  5. “Transforming Public Education in New Orleans: The Recovery School District,” Tulane University, Cowen Institute (2012): 6, accessed February 9, 2015,
  6. Patrick Sims and Debra Vaughan, “The State of Public Education in New Orleans: 2014 Report,” Tulane University, The Cowen Institute (2014): 3, accessed February 9, 2015,
  7. “The State of Public Education in New Orleans: 2013 Report,” Tulane University, The Cowen Institute (2013): 21, accessed February 9, 2015,
  8. “Charter School Performance in Louisiana,” Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2013): 39, accessed February 9, 2015,
  9. “Welcome to New Orleans!,” New Orleans Public School Enrollment, accessed February 9, 2015,
  10. Danielle Dreilinger, “City Council promises New Orleans school transportation task force after 6-year-old’s death,” The Times-Picayune, February 12, 2014, accessed February 9, 2015,
  11. “K-12 Application Packet,” One App, New Orleans (2015): 11-30, accessed February 9, 2015,
  12. Danielle Dreilinger, “City Council promises New Orleans school transportation task force after 6-year-old’s death,” The Times-Picayune, February 12, 2014, accessed February 9, 2015,
  13. “New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools,” New Orleans Parents’ Guide (2015), accessed February 9, 2015,
  14. “Louisiana Charter School Performance Contract,” Louisiana Department of Education: accessed February 9, 2015,
  15. Sarah Carr, “Debate over charter operators for Craig Elementary raises questions about neighborhood’s role in remaking local schools,” The Times-Picayune, March 7, 2010, accessed February 9, 2015,
  16. Andrew Vanacore, “RSD schedules public meetings to get input on schools slated to become charters,” The Times-Picayune, November 2, 2011, accessed February 9, 2015,
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