“I think the charter model — and that’s what I’m going to stress — allows you to do this,” Clay says. “You have a lot of charter schools in New Orleans that have [the freedom] to get what they need for the children instead of, ‘Let’s place an order, let’s make this come from a top-down approach.’”
Because administrators have more control over budgeting and spending, they’ve been able to prioritize their particular needs. In addition to providing robust academics, sports, and extracurricular activities, Karr employs three regular counselors, one college counselor, a full-time nurse, and two full-time social workers. The nurse persuades local doctors to visit for in-house checkups; on one occasion, a student had a root canal on a table in an administrator’s office.
Clay says that because he knows so many of his students have an absent father, he has employed “a lot of different men around here, and I want to stress that — men.” Clay gives out his cell-phone number freely so students can call him anytime they need, and he encourages his teachers to be there for their students, too. “I want them to have a person to call,” he says. “That’s the benefit of not being a traditional educator.”
Teachers are required to stay late some days, offering remedial help and tutoring — an uncompensated extra effort that a teachers’ union would probably oppose, although it makes a huge difference to students’ progress. Karr offers ACT preparation and college visits, encouraging students to apply for scholarships and make connections for their future careers. Administrators recruit community groups and businesses to volunteer or donate. The school has invested in infrastructure, giving the students a sense of worth they lacked in their old, broken, dirty learning environment.
Sonya Sylve, a parent and Edna Karr alum, says that as a charter, Edna Karr is “versatile in every way . . . the way they handle the students, the material that’s brought into the school for the students, parental involvement.” The students learn from example, coming away with “the willingness to want to learn, to be a part of something new,” she says. “They’re not afraid to be introduced to something that’s different, challenging.”
Though the charter receives the same $8,500 per student as does any other Louisiana school, Karr has made staggering progress with its students. In the last school year, it was one of three schools in the nation to win the Gaston Caperton Inspiration Award, which honors institutions that help low-income students achieve academic success.
Karr’s teachers manage to cram in four years’ worth of English and math by the time students enter their junior year. In May 2013, all but two students in a senior class of 220 graduated, and 80 percent immediately went to college. That’s in an environment where many students are first-generation high-school graduates, let alone college students.
“It’s rewarding when you have an A and B student and they succeed,” says Cheryl Flotte, president of the parent-teacher association. “[But] when you have a D student who succeeds . . . I think, ‘That’s what we’ve got here. We offer everybody, from the smartest to the ones that are struggling, the opportunity to succeed.’”
Not all New Orleans charters have made such dramatic progress, but there’s been a noticeable uptick in the quality of education since the city embraced school choice. Today, almost 80 percent of public-school students in the city attend charters, and on average they receive 86 more days of math instruction and 58 more days of reading than their public-school counterparts do, according to a new report from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes. Minority students especially benefit. While New Orleans still has a long way to go, “I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Clay says. “That is, we’re putting out better citizens, in my opinion, because of the charter movement.”
That includes many of his own graduates. One alumus went to West Point. Another, a football player whom Clay fondly describes as “my knucklehead,” attended Columbia on a scholarship. The school’s 2012 valedictorian, Rosario Gardenia, is a native Spanish-speaker who spoke little English when she first came to Karr. She studied hard, applied herself, and graduated with not only English fluency but also $141,000 in scholarship money. Last year’s valedictorian, Brianna Despenza, recevied scholarship offers totaling $1.3 million. “She got to sit back at the table, looking at all of the money and all of the schools, and choose,” Clay says.
The commitment to school choice is pervasive in New Orleans’s alternative schools, and it’s a refreshing shift in a city where parents had long felt trapped and deprived of options. Not that the teachers’ unions have much cared; in 2012, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported, Michael Walker Jones of the Louisiana Association of Educators dismissed choice on the ground that “parents may not have the time or information to make a decision about their child’s education.” The paper quoted him as saying, “If I’m a parent in poverty, I have no clue because I’m trying to struggle and live day to day.”
Though the public-school model failed New Orleans historically, it still has its vocal adherents; school choice is by no means a fait accompli. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice sued to block 34 school districts across the state of Louisiana from giving private-school vouchers to the approximately 400,000 eligible poor children who attend failing schools. Most of these students seeking to escape academic doom are black — but the DOJ is claiming, without irony, that it’s acting in their interest, because when these minority kids leave, it makes the bad schools less diverse.
Specifically, the DOJ wants to require parents to get pre-clearance from a federal court before they may transfer their children to a better school. Moms and dads would basically have to take on the federal government and all of its complicated rules and bureaucracy. (That’s a significant burden for anyone, and all the more so for New Orleans’s poor though responsible parents.) Less controversially, the DOJ wants Louisiana to provide data on how the existing voucher program has changed the racial composition of its classrooms. (And here’s the kicker — a recent study from the University of Arkansas’s School Choice Demonstration Project found that Louisiana voucher students actually decreased segregation when they switched schools.)
The DOJ’s warped rationale has met predictable scorn, so in late September, the Obama administration tried to spin the story, filing an additional motion that trivially amended its suit. The additional motion praises Louisiana for agreeing to submit the statistics — which it had intended to do all along. Meanwhile, this maneuver does nothing to address the DOJ’s most fundamental and objectionable claim: that the federal government is better equipped than individual parents to make decisions about where children should attend school.
If the DOJ and its union allies succeed, they will do so against the will of New Orleans parents, who strongly want to have educational options. More than half of New Orleans parents want to send their child to a school of their choice, according to an April report by Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives. Karr has a long wait list, and staffers have often seen parents crying in their front office — out of concern that their children won’t get in, and out of relief if they do.
“What we’re doing here, in my opinion, is the true model of charter, the true model of right to choose, parents having the opportunity to do their own homework,” Clay says. “Whenever you give stakeholders the opportunity to investigate, do research for a quality education, then we’re doing a great service to all folk.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. This article is adapted from the October 28, 2013, issue of National Review.