Rise of chartersin New Orleans

21st October 2005 at 01:00

Education chiefs in New Orleans are putting charter schools at the heart of efforts to rebuild the city's education system.

They voted to turn all 13 schools in the hurricane-hit city's least affected areas - expected to be the first to re-open - into charters. The schools operate separately from regular state schools, in partnership with community stakeholders such as local businesses, charities and universities. Partners provide curricular input and extra funding.

The mayor also pledged to create a new education authority to run a city-wide network of the independent state schools. Civic leaders want to create at least 20 new charters across the city.

The initiative was also driven by a $20.9 million (pound;12m) grant from the Bush administration, a big supporter of charters.

In an example of the kind of partnership they hope to attract, the city's Tulane university announced earlier this month it would help set up a new arts-themed primary and secondary school at one damaged school site, chipping in $1.5m of start-up costs.

Officials believe rebuilding after the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina gives them a chance to overhaul a school system that was languishing academically, riven with financial corruption, and widely regarded as among America's worst. "There's an opportunity to re-make a school district whose performance was way too low," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, representing the largest urban education authorities in the US.

Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco, said last week that the charter schools heralded a "new beginning".

Up to three-quarters of New Orleans' schools may need to be demolished after Katrina, according to Bill Roberti, managing director of the crisis management firm Alvarez Marsal, brought in over the summer on a two-year $16.8m contract to run the city's troubled schools.

"The school system was almost completely eradicated," he said.

But Pedro Noguera, a New York University education professor, warned that charter schools are not a "panacea". "There are good charters and bad charters. The problems of public education in New Orleans are rooted in inequality and poverty. Unless charters provide services that are different - engaging parents and offering children innovative services - the problems will still be there."

With homes levelled or beyond repair, power still out and no drinking water across much of the city, fewer than 3,000 of the city's 55,000 pupils are expected back by the end of November, when the first eight of its 126 schools should reopen.

It remains unclear how many will never return at all.

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