Public Charter Schools

NEW ORLEANS — The second-graders paraded to the Dumpster in the rear parking lot, where they chucked boxes of old worksheets, notebooks and other detritus into the trash, emptying their school for good.

Benjamin Banneker Elementary closed Wednesday as New Orleans’s Recovery School District permanently shuttered its last five traditional public schools this week.

With the start of the next school year, the Recovery School District will be the first in the country made up completely of public charter schools, a milestone for New Orleans and a grand experiment in urban education for the nation.

It has been two decades since the first public charter school opened in Minnesota, conceived as a laboratory where innovations could be tested before their introduction into public schools. Now, 42 states encourage charters as an alternative to conventional schools, and enrollment has been growing, particularly in cities. In the District of Columbia, 44 percent of the city’s students attend charter schools.

But in New Orleans, under the Recovery School District, the Louisiana state agency that seized control of almost all public schools after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005, the traditional system has been swept away.

The creation of the country’s first all-charter school system has improved education for many children in New Orleans, but it also has severed ties to a community institution, the neighborhood school, and amplified concerns about racial equality and loss of parental control.

An all-charter district signals the dismantling of the central school bureaucracy and a shift of power to dozens of independent school operators, who will assume all the corresponding functions: the authority to hire and fire teachers and administrators, maintain buildings, run buses and provide services to special-needs students.

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