Here’s How Hurricane Katrina Changed Schools in New Orleans

Kelsey Harkness /

NEW ORLEANS—For all its devastation, Hurricane Katrina swept into this city an opportunity to embark on one of the greatest education experiments in America.

In the aftermath of the 2005 storm, instead of rebuilding a public school system where roughly two in every three schools were deemed “failing,” the city transformed almost all of its traditionally run public schools into independently operated charter schools.

Charter schools changed the city’s approach to education, eliminating attendance zones, removing unions and giving parents a real say where they send their kids to school.

To document the drastic changes that have taken place in education since Hurricane Katrina, The Daily Signal traveled to New Orleans to speak with students, parents, educators and charter school operators about the transition. Their story is told in our new video.

Today, 92 percent of students in New Orleans attend charters.

Instead of graduating roughly 54 percent of its students, as New Orleans did before the storm, the city’s public schools (both charter and non-charter) now graduate 73 percent of students, even beating the national average in male graduation rate.

Last year at Cohen College Prep, one of the city’s worst-performing schools before Hurricane Katrina hit, 100 percent of its students were accepted into college. It’s these kinds of statistics that have led some to dub the charter school movement, “the silver lining to the storm.”

Charter schools operate as public schools in New Orleans; they don’t charge tuition, provide yellow buses around the city and follow state standards such as Common Core.

Yet, instead of being run by the government, charters are operated by a private nonprofit or for-profit organizations.

Local and state school boards grant those organizations strict contracts. If a school fails, its charter is revoked and given to new organization to operate.

In exchange for that responsibility, charter schools have more autonomy over their daily operations, including hiring, firing, budgeting and instruction decisions.

The system’s biggest advocates admit things aren’t perfect, and there’s still vast room for improvements. In the 2013-14 academic year, 10 of 80 charters received an “F” grade. Three of these schools have since shut down, and one, Andrew H. Wilson, has been turned over to a new charter operator.

The system symbolizes a change in attitude that has taken over New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina—most notably that failure is no longer an option. Today, more than ever before, residents are determined to show the country they can lead, and in doing so, serve as a model for others to follow.