New Orleans

After a tumultuous start to his sons’ education, Harold Bailey thought he’d finally found a great match for 8-year-old Harold Jr. and 6-year-old Hakeem.

The boys landed spots in Lagniappe Academies, an elementary charter school housed in pastel yellow, orange, and pink trailers perched on a parking lot in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood—just outside the French Quarter.

Bailey and the boys’ mother had made Lagniappe their first choice—mostly for its small class sizes that a doctor said would be best for Hakeem, who is autistic. But last March, the state shut down the school after uncovering serious violations of the federal law that guarantees students with disabilities an equal education.

It was a major blow to the family. It meant the boys would be switching schools for the third time before either had even reached 3rd grade. And it meant going through the arduous school choice and application process yet another time and navigating a school system nothing like the one Bailey himself had been in as a student 10 years earlier.

“I don’t want to do this again,” Bailey recalls thinking when he first heard rumors that the school was going to get shut down. “I was in denial. … We just came from a failing school.”

Bailey, 27, juggles two full-time driving jobs and rarely gets a day off. But his sons are always on his mind. “I have to make sure I have time with my boys,” he says. “Somebody needs to tickle them, be the tickle monster.”

Bailey was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. He’d graduated just months earlier from John F. Kennedy High, part of the last class to earn diplomas from the school. He grew up in the city’s 7th Ward, where many of the homes in his childhood neighborhood remain boarded up from the storm, and attended an elementary school that he describes as one of the city’s worst.

He wants much better for his sons. But he’s skeptical that this new system of wide-open choice can fulfill that hope.

He’s been struggling to get his sons enrolled in a new school—a task that’s more complex in New Orleans than anywhere else in the country, especially for parents with children who have disabilities.

New Orleans parent Harold Bailey has struggled to find the right school for his two sons in the city's all-charter system.

Lagniappe Academies, the school that Bailey believed best met his sons’ needs, had not been providing critical special education services to some of its students. The state said administrators lied when questioned by officials, who later moved to close the school.

Violating special education laws is one of the most egregious failures of any school, but it’s especially sensitive in a city that has been repeatedly rebuked for leaving behind students with disabilities as educators and policymakers have overhauled public schooling.

The golden rule in the charter sector is if a school fails to perform—academically, financially, or legally—it gets shut down. But at Lagniappe, some families believe that rule was haphazardly applied. Bailey felt Hakeem was getting the personalized attention and services that he needed.

In the decade since the storm, New Orleans has seen an unparalleled amount of school turnover.

New schools open. They get handed off to new charter operators. They close down. This shifting landscape has produced bizarre situations where storied city schools are still being run out of trailers far from the neighborhoods they anchored for decades—passed between operators while remaining under the legacy name. Take the example of George Washington Carver High School.

The storm’s aftereffects led to a $1.8 billion payout from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help build new campuses and upgrade existing schools—a desperately needed investment in a city where many public school facilities had been deteriorating in part from white flight for years, then left in ruins after Katrina. But the typically slow pace of large-scale public works construction projects means several schools are still waiting for permanent buildings.

Making Choice Manageable

In the case of Lagniappe, state officials chose not to seek a new operator, partly because they didn’t think they could recruit one on such short notice and partly because the school was still in trailers with no permanent space on the horizon. But that decision punted families like the Baileys back into the fray of choosing a school among the city’s 50-plus elementary campuses late in the enrollment period—a process, Bailey says, complicated by the fact that no students are automatically guaranteed a slot in the school closest to their home. Instead, families request a list of schools in order of preference. A centralized computer system designed to bring order to the patchwork of independent schools makes the matches.

The computer system—known as OneApp—illustrates how education leaders are still struggling to make all the choices feel manageable.

Selecting a good school requires the time to research and visit campuses—tasks that are arguably easier for families with a two-parent household and flexible work hours. In a city where over 80 percent of students come from low-income families, these are common hurdles.

In some ways this has been a stumbling block for the school choice movement—which has built itself around the mantra that school choice frees families from being condemned to failing schools based simply on their ZIP code.

To tackle the issue, the city’s two school governing entities—the state-run Recovery School District and the locally elected Orleans Parish school board—now have a single enrollment system for most of the city’s charter schools. In the early years of the post-Katrina system, there were countless application processes, deadlines, and school lotteries. OneApp was meant to bring order to the Balkanized landscape.

An algorithm matches students to schools based not only the list of preferences parents submit, but also on other factors such as demand and the number of seats available. Other specific admittance requirements a school may have—say fluency in a foreign language—are also taken into account.

But many parents, especially those with kindergartners entering a system vastly different from any they grew up with, can find this situation confusing at best.

“Nobody likes the idea that an algorithm is making a decision about where their child will go to school,” says Robin Lake, a well-known researcher on school choice issues at the University of Washington.

Streamlining the application process, however, wasn’t the only reason for creating OneApp; it’s also supposed to make the school matching process more equitable.

“Parents who have been savvy shoppers in the former system and get accepted into six different schools and then make their choice among those six have lost their advantage,” Lake says.

In other words, parents with more resources—be it time or connections—don’t have a leg up over those who don’t.

‘Like a Part-Time Job’

But even with a common enrollment system, and a comprehensive guidebook that lists the vital statistics of every school in the city, the choice process can still be overwhelming.

We'd be better under the direction of a chimpanzee. That's how I feel as a parent seeing this whole system. HAROLD BAILEY, Parent

“It’s kind of like a part-time job almost,” says Kyrstie Schultz-Pellum, a New Orleans parent whose oldest son is entering kindergarten. “Between research and reading, and putting things together, and talking to people, hours. Hours and hours.”

And, Schultz-Pellum explains, there are important holdouts that have hung onto their pre-Katrina selective-admissions processes and don’t currently participate in OneApp. Among them are some of the city’s highest-performing schools, such as Lusher, Audubon, and Benjamin Franklin High School. That, some critics charge, makes those schools as inaccessible now to disadvantaged families as they were in the pre-Katrina system.

Although Schultz-Pellum’s son Sebastian got accepted into Audubon and Lusher, neither school was the family’s top pick. Family members initially had their hearts set on a relatively new charter school committed to having a diverse student body, called Bricolage Academy. Schultz-Pellum is half Latina. Her husband is black. But their son was not matched with Bricolage in two rounds of OneApp, so the family decided to send Sebastian to Lusher.

Seventy-one percent of parents got their first choice in the main round of OneApp for the 2014-15 school year, according to the Louisiana education department. Thirteen percent got their second choice; 6 percent got their third.

Harold Bailey, who held out hope that Lagniappe might remain open under different leadership, was among the few parents to get their last choice. Parents can submit up to eight choices.

Bailey initially knew little about Esperanza Charter, the school his sons have since been assigned to. He threw it on his list at the last minute because the state gave it a B grade last year.

“We’d be better under the direction of a chimpanzee,” he said. “That’s how I feel as a parent seeing this whole system.”

Dajon Davis, a 7-year-old 1st grader at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, works on a word search assignment.
--Swikar Patel/Education Week

Serving Special Education Students

Plenty of people in New Orleans see the Lagniappe closure as an example of the system working.

The redesign of New Orleans’ public schools has been lambasted for failing to plan for how students with disabilities would fit into the system. The hard line the state took with Lagniappe over its failure to provide special education services, and its attempt to cover it up, is a sign to some that education officials are serious about weeding out bad actors. Critics have long charged that some schools deliberately refused to serve special-needs students, a common criticism of the charter sector at large.

There are incentives to turn away or discourage students with special needs from enrolling. Chief among them: worries that special education students make it more challenging to meet minimum academic benchmarks that could, in theory, shut a school down. Because schools are competing for students, high test scores are a key enticement for parents.

In New Orleans, researchers have found subtle and not-so-subtle ways that charters discourage students from enrolling. The Education Research Alliance at Tulane University interviewed education officials on how competition affected their operations and decisionmaking and found that about one-third of surveyed schools used various tactics to select or exclude students. Those included encouraging transfers, not reporting open spots, or marketing schools through invitation-only events. However, it’s important to note the study was conducted just as OneApp was launched.

A lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Southern Poverty Law Center alleged that the city’s charter schools served fewer students with disabilities than did district-run schools. Students with disabilities in charter schools were less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be suspended than their peers citywide.

The suit further alleged that several schools either flat-out turned away students with special needs or didn’t have the right teachers and staff to provide them necessary services.

But there were also inherent structural issues with the decentralized system of independent schools, especially early on, that made serving students in special education challenging.

“If you look at how students were getting served after the storm, the story wasn’t good. Kids’ [with learning disabilities] weren’t getting identified, schools were opening and closing all the time, kids were getting shuffled around, there weren’t enough teachers,” says Michael Stone, the co-director of New Schools for New Orleans, an influential nonprofit that supports opening new charters. “And there were some schools that were denying access to students for reasons that were understandable although illegal: They didn’t have the means to meet the needs of a certain child.”

Nobody likes the idea that an algorithm is making a decision about where their child will go to school. ROBIN LAKE, Researcher on school choice issues at the University of Washington

Many charters function like their own mini-districts and are obligated under federal law to provide services to any student who walks through the door. But unlike a regular district, a charter school can’t spread the costs associated with educating that student across multiple schools.

“It’s a terrible financial risk for the school,” says Ms. Lake, the researcher. “It’s a little bit easier if it’s part of a network.”

That’s a problem facing charter schools across the country, but it was compounded in New Orleans, where most of the city’s schools had become charters and there was no large district infrastructure for families of students with special needs to fall back on.

In the past three years, more initiatives and organizations have been trying to solve the problem. New Schools for New Orleans has been aggressively seeking foundation money and awarding grants to charter schools to expand their special education services.

Many of those changes have been driven by the 2010 lawsuit, which was settled, and brings a host of other remedies, including a court-appointed monitor.

The Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish school board have also banded together to set up a citywide risk pool for students whose needs cost more than $22,000 a year.

Even OneApp is another adaptation meant to stop schools from denying admittance to students with disabilities. It’s much harder for individual schools to game the system when computer-generated algorithms makes school assignments.

But that’s not enough for Bailey. For a father of an autistic son, a system where the ultimate accountability rests on school closure is not sustainable for his family. He wants stability: Familiar classmates, teachers who know his sons, and a school that stays open, year in and year out.

“It’s like why do you stay here, but geez,” Bailey claps his hand on his chest over his heart. “Next storm, I’m out.”