- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Self-styled reformers and advocates of charter schools can take heart in research that has shown improvements in student performance following the overhaul of New Orleans public education amid the rubble of Hurricane Katrina. But that doesn’t mean all the maxims about what reform would bring have proven true.

Sandwiched in among the reports that showed test scores and graduation rates edging up was the one, released in 2015 by Tulane’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, that showed competition among charters didn’t always drive efforts to improve academics. The study found that 10 schools dealt with competition by, in effect, screening enrollment - perhaps advising some students to transfer or advertising invitation-only school-related events.

Then there was last week’s report, also from the Research Alliance, that generated headlines such as “In New Orleans, charters schools spend more on chiefs and less on classrooms,” and “More money for top staff, less in the classroom since Katrina.”

The study conducted by Christian Buerger and Douglas Harris compared spending levels on New Orleans schools from 2000 to 20014 to a group of Louisiana districts that had nearly identical spending patterns prior to Katrina, which hit in 2005.

New Orleans’ publicly funded schools spent 13% more per pupil on operating expenditures than the comparison group after the post-Katrina reforms, even though the comparison group had nearly identical spending before the reforms. Instructional expenditures dropped 10 percent per student.

The devastation that followed the levee breaches during Katrina led to a takeover of most New Orleans public schools by the state Recovery School District, which eventually made all of its schools charter schools, publicly funded but run by independent organizations that get to keep their charters if they meet performance benchmarks.

Among the many problems attributed to the pre-Katrina New Orleans school system was a creaky, sometimes corrupt, costly bureaucracy that the new charter movement was aimed at relieving.

But the report indicates that spending on operations and administration is up in New Orleans and spending on teacher salaries and other instructional expenses is down.

The report isn’t judgmental about the increased bureaucratic costs.

“There is no one right way to use educational resources, and it is worth noting that these changes in spending levels and patterns came alongside a large improvement in education outcomes for students,” the study said.

Swinging away from a bureaucracy in favor of schools run by relatively small charter management organizations can mean also swinging away from economies of scale, the report noted. “In larger traditional districts, schools can share a single system for accounting, busing, and food service.”

Administrative salaries also are driving the increase in operating costs. “There are more administrators, and they typically earn higher salaries than they would have without the reforms,” says the report, which also notes that the charters are more likely to hire educators with degrees from elite colleges.

The report notes large declines in spending on teacher salaries and even larger declines in fringe benefits - owing in part to the fact that the charters aren’t required to participate in the Teacher Retirement System of Louisiana. The report states that charters are hiring younger, less experienced teachers, which translates into lower salaries.

It’s unclear how the pending return of all schools to local school board control might affect economies of scale and help bring down costs.

And the future is unclear for other reasons. The combination of more highly paid managers and teachers with less experience appears to be working, for now. But is the current system sustainable?

“There are signs that interest in New Orleans is abating among younger teachers and growing concern about the constant churn of teachers who do not plan to stay or make teaching a career here,” the report said. “The state government is also in dire financial straits and may eventually have to either reduce spending or force charter schools to pay into the state pension system.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans.

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