In July of 2018, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans released a comprehensive, summative longitudinal report on the effects on student outcomes of the package of reforms implemented in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005. The following policy brief reviews the findings of this recent report by Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen, offers critique of their methods and interpretation of findings and attempts to provide broader policy context for those findings.
In summary, Harris and Larsen find significant positive effects of Post-Katrina New Orleans school reforms on short-term student achievement measures, and longer term college attendance, persistence and completion. They attribute these results to the “market-based” reforms adopted following Katrina, and go to great lengths to dismiss or downplay threats to the validity of this conclusion. But for many reasons, that attribution may be misguided.
- First, the authors downplay the potential influence of significant changes in the concentration of poverty across neighborhoods and schools—specifically the reductions in extreme poverty which may contribute significantly to the improved student outcomes in the years following Katrina;
- Second, the authors understate the importance of the substantial increases to funding which occurred concurrently with organizational and governance changes in the district, specifically disclaiming the importance of increased funding by suggesting that the funding increases would not have existed but for the reforms;
- Third, the authors argue, without evidence, that similar funding increases provided to the old, New Orleans school system would not likely have had similar impact, claiming they would have been inefficient or wasteful. At the same time the authors sidestep the fact that much of the funding increase in the new system was allocated toward increased and duplicative overhead expenses, as well as increased transportation costs resulting from citywide choice;
- Fourth, the authors define the treatment as the package of market-based reforms, which are largely changes to the governance and organization of New Orleans schools, rather than focusing on the types of schools, programs and services, and qualifications of incoming staff who entered this
Adopting similar governance and organizational changes, and citywide choice in other contexts may lead to very different results. It remains unclear whether population change and redistribution, coupled with the infusion of resources could have resulted in similar effects, even without structural reforms.