If we were creating a public education system from scratch, would we organize it as most of our public systems are now organized? Would our classrooms look just as they did before the advent of personal computers and the internet? Would we give teachers lifetime jobs after their second or third years? Would we let schools survive if, year after year, half their students dropped out? Would we send children to school for only eight and a half months a year and six hours a day? Would we assign them to schools by neighborhood, reinforcing racial and economic segregation?

Few people would answer yes to such questions. But in real life we don’t usually get to start over; instead, we have to change existing systems.

One city did get a chance to start over, however. In 2005, after the third deadliest hurricane in US history, state leaders wiped the slate clean in New Orleans. After Katrina, Louisiana handed all but seventeen of the city’s public schools to the state’s Recovery School District (RSD), created two years earlier to turn around failing schools. Over the next nine years, the RSD gradually turned them all into charter schools—a new form of public school that has emerged over the past quarter century. Charters are public schools operated by independent, mostly nonprofit organizations, free of most state and district rules but held accountable for performance by written charters, which function like performance contracts. Most, but not all, are schools of choice. In 2019, New Orleans’ last traditional schools converted to charter status, and 100 percent of its public school students now attend charters.



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