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The Triumph of School Choice in New Orleans

Before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, New Orleans public schools were some of the worst in the nation. Sadly, thousands of poor children were trapped in their local failing public schools. During this time, New Orleans had only a 40 percent literacy rate and 50 percent of black students did not graduate high school in four years.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, students were forced to temporarily leave the district. The silver lining in this tragedy is that their departure gave the New Orleans’ school district a rare opportunity to rebuild its entire school system from the ground up. According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan,

I hate to say this… I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster. It took hurricane Katrina to wake up the community and say we have to do better. The progress that they've made in four years is unbelievable.

Over the past five years, New Orleans has turned tragedy into triumph. It has quickly become the most market based school district in the country. The state of Louisiana took over most of the schools in the district and turned them into successful charter schools. As a result, 70 percent of students in New Orleans will be attending a charter school in the fall—the highest rate of any district in the nation. Additionally, the district now has an open choice policy that allows students to attend any public school regardless of their geographical location. In 2008, Louisiana enacted the School Scholarship for Educational Excellence Program that gives low-income students a tuition voucher to attend the school of their choice.

As a result, parents in New Orleans have a great menu of school options to choose from. Since these school choice programs began, New Orleans schools have become practically unrecognizable. According to US News,

So far, the numbers show it has been mostly successful. A recent Stanford University study highlighted Louisiana…where charter schools outperform traditional pub­lic schools. Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek reports that in New Orleans, the combined district test scores have risen 24 percent since 2005, when most stu­dents attended traditional schools.

As the video below from shows, New Orleans parents are thrilled that they have more choices on where to send their children to school. It is reassuring that the school choice movement is also gaining momentum in states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Hopefully, more states will follow New Orleans’ successful lead by expanding school choice and freedom to improve educational quality.