As Condi Rice noted at the last GOP convention, school reform is the civil rights issue of our time. Without a decent education, poor students will remain so.

Alas, aided and abetted by the Democrat party, labor unions has stifled progress. That’s a bitter laugh toward those who define themselves as progressive.

Now hear the story of New Orleans, which took the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and turned it into opportunity.

Douglas Harris in EducationNext

What happened to the New Orleans public schools following the tragic levee breeches after Hurricane Katrina is truly unprecedented. Within the span of one year, all public-school employees were fired, the teacher contract expired and was not replaced, and most attendance zones were eliminated. The state took control of almost all public schools and began holding them to relatively strict standards of academic achievement. Over time, the state turned all the schools under its authority over to charter management organizations (CMOs) that, in turn, dramatically reshaped the teacher workforce.

A few states and districts nationally have experimented with one or two of these reforms; many states have increased the number of charter schools, for example. But no city had gone as far on any one of these dimensions or considered trying all of them at once. New Orleans essentially erased its traditional school district and started over. In the process, the city has provided the first direct test of an alternative to the system that has dominated American public education for more than a century.

Dozens of districts around the country are citing the New Orleans experience to justify their own reforms. In addition to being hailed by Democratic president Barack Obama and Louisiana’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, parliamentary delegations from at least two countries have visited the city to learn about its schools.

The unprecedented nature of the reforms and level of national and international attention by themselves make the New Orleans experience a worthy topic of analysis and debate. But also consider that the underlying principles are what many reformers have dreamed about for decades—that schools would be freed from most district and union contract rules and allowed to innovate. They would be held accountable not for compliance but for results.

There is clearly a lot of hype. The question is, are the reforms living up to it? Specifically, how did the reforms affect school practices and student learning? My colleagues and I at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans) at Tulane University have carried out a series of studies to answer these and other questions. Our work is motivated by the sheer scale of the Katrina tragedy and the goal of supporting students, educators, and city leaders in their efforts to make the city’s schools part of the city’s revitalization effort. The rest of the country wants to know how well the New Orleans school reforms have worked. But the residents of New Orleans deserve to know. Here’s what we can tell them so far.

Before the Storm

Assessing the effects of this policy experiment involves comparing the effectiveness of New Orleans schools before and after the reforms. As in most districts, before Hurricane Katrina, an elected board set New Orleans district policies and selected superintendents, who hired principals to run schools. Principals hired teachers, who worked under a union contract. Students were assigned to schools based mainly on attendance zones.

The New Orleans public school district was highly dysfunctional. In 2003, a private investigator found that the district system, which had about 8,000 employees, inappropriately provided checks to nearly 4,000 people and health insurance to 2,000 people. In 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued indictments against 11 people for criminal offenses against the district related to financial mismanagement. Eight superintendents served between 1998 and 2005, lasting on average just 11 months.

This dysfunction, combined with the socioeconomic background of city residents—83 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—contributed to poor academic results. In the 2004‒05 school year, Orleans Parish public schools ranked 67th out of 68 Louisiana districts in math and reading test scores. The graduation rate was 56 percent, at least 10 percentage points below the state average.

As a result, some reforms were already under way when Katrina hit in August 2005. The state-run Recovery School District (RSD) had already been created to take over low-performing New Orleans schools. The state had appointed an emergency financial manager to handle the district’s finances. There were some signs of improvement in student outcomes just before the storm, but, as we will see, these were relatively modest compared with what came next…