Re-Creating Public Education in New Orleans

September 2005

This commentary by Paul Hill first appeared in Education Week, September 21, 2005.

In the case of post-hurricane New Orleans, American school planners will be as close as they have ever come to a 'green field' opportunity: A large public education system will need to be built from scratch. It seems impossible to put the pre-existing New Orleans public school system together again. Even if that were possible, doing so would be misguided. The system in place before Hurricane Katrina was not built to cope with the problems facing New Orleans now.

No doubt, the U.S. Department of Education and national philanthropic foundations will want to do all they can to help. And almost any well-intentioned act will be welcome. But the circumstances call for a coherent strategy, not just a round of do-gooding.

Although last year in New Orleans there were 60,000 children in district-run schools and 50,000 in parochial schools, no one knows how many of those students will return, or where they will settle, or when. Nobody knows whether the parochial schools will re-emerge, able to serve a high proportion of the city's children. Today, most school buildings are uninhabitable, many damaged beyond repair. Moreover, the neighborhoods that once had the largest numbers of students have lost much of their housing. Teachers and administrators have moved away, too.

There is reason to think that many of the city's displaced citizenry--both middle-class families that find jobs elsewhere and poor families that settle into new schools and neighborhoods might stay away. But some portion of the population will come back, and new families could be attracted to the city by a boom in infrastructure construction, new housing, and revived public institutions.

For the foreseeable future, though, New Orleans will need to cope with uncertainty. The size and even the location of the student population may shift from year to year, as neighborhoods are rebuilt and different parts of the local economy come back on line.

Finally, no one can determine with any certainty how much state and local tax money will be available. Katrina will knock a big hole in state tax receipts, and local governments have almost no revenue base left.

How can public education be restarted under these circumstances? Here are six keys to a solution:

  • Acknowledge that a lot of the money will have to come from outside, from the federal government and philanthropic giving.
  • Put virtually all the money available into the schools themselves. Offer former central-office staff members who are qualified to teach the opportunity to do so, but don't spend money rebuilding the old district structure.
  • Avoid premature investment in school facilities, waiting at least until neighborhoods are well established and student population needs are known.
  • Create schools one by one, by assigning their operation, under charters or contracts, to such diverse groups as teacher co-operatives, nonprofits, higher education institutions, national school providers, and others.
  • Welcome back teachers who worked in the city's public and parochial schools, but offer them a new employment deal: They will work for individual schools, and their work assignments will shift from time to time, depending on trends in the school population and the needs of school providers.
  • Don't assign students to schools. Let the location of families and their needs determine where their children enroll.

To act on these kinds of recommendations, federal and state governments and major philanthropies will have to agree on a common strategy. Such a strategy should begin with a state-federal partnership to fund the education of New Orleans children.

The state should continue to provide its per-capita share of costs (about two-thirds of the total per-pupil expenditure), as well as the amount it appropriates for capital expenditures. The federal government should combine all its categorical-aid programs into one lump sum. The feds also could replace lost local taxes, which paid about $1,200 per pupil, with what might be called special 'Spellings Plan' aid of about $75 million a year. To cover the students previously in parochial schools, the federal government would have to come up with another $60 million a year. This federal support would continue until local sales- and property-tax revenues grew to some share, above 50 percent, of pre-hurricane levels.

Money from all sources should be pooled to provide scholarships for all New Orleans students, no matter where they previously went to school. Consistent with the aim of putting all money directly into the schools, any licensed school should get the full scholarship amount for every student it enrolls, so long as it agrees not to charge families extra.

The governor of Louisiana should appoint a special master to oversee the New Orleans schools. The master would have the sole authority to permit a group to run a school with public funds. The master's office would be able to accept applications for any type of school, but its first priority would be to establish 'triage schools' emphasizing reading and math. Schools would not be required to cover all other aspects of the state curriculum for a period of two years. They would be required to admit students by lottery, but could set standards for attendance and deportment. The master would encourage the development of special schools for students in need of psychological intervention.

The master appointed by the governor also would have the capacity to audit schools' books, and would be given authority to withdraw school licenses for fiscal and academic nonperformance. He or she would serve a five-year term and could be removed only by unanimous agreement among officials including the governor, the mayor of New Orleans, the chair of the state school board, and the president of a local university.

National foundations should create a school start-up fund of about $50 million to help schools assemble teaching staffs and locate space. Those with track records in running New Orleans' parochial schools should be welcomed as possible resources to run new public schools, as should local colleges and universities.

To create school facilities without making premature investments in bricks and mortar, the federal government should capitalize a facilities authority that would be responsible for leasing space in commercial buildings and entering future contracts with developers who are constructing or rehabilitating mixed-use buildings. This authority would sublease to schools, and schools would pay rent from their scholarship incomes. The initial capital required would be about $150 million.

Regional and national corporations also could encourage qualified teachers to move to New Orleans by sponsoring a human-resources fund. Schools could apply to the fund for grants covering moving costs and short-term rent subsidies for teachers. To encourage a strong response to hiring efforts, the state would also waive indefinitely teacher- and principal-certification requirements, other than the requirement that candidates have a college degree.

To help parents find and choose schools, foundations should set up a nonprofit parent-information agency at a local university. Its estimated cost would be about $2 million.

There's a lot more to think about, such as transportation. And it's probably too soon for governments to make big financial commitments. But the time will come soon, probably before January. For now, it is important to get some education-specific ideas out, to avoid letting instruction become tangled up with health care and social services. To be effective, foundations and the federal government need to unite behind a common strategy, rather than acting randomly and alone.