Corporate reformers have touted the New Orleans “transformation” as proof that privatization works. The recipe is simple: First, get a natural disaster to wipe out all the public schools. Then, fire all the unionized teachers and replace them with inexperienced, low-wage teachers willing to work long hours. At the same time, replace the public schools with privately managed charter schools. Let everyone choose. And, eventually, great things happen: test scores go up, graduation rates go up, college admission rates rise, college persistence goes up. All these great things happen by the miracle of privatization.

As Carol Burris explains in this important article, the narrative is all wrong.

Before Hurricane Katrina, there were 65,000 students in the schools of New Orleans. Today, there are about 45,000. The hurricane did the most damage to the low-lying areas where very poor people lived, and some of them never returned.

In mid-July, Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen wrote a paper about the great success of the reforms in New Orleans. There are many caveats, mostly having to do with the causes of improvements. And, as Valerie Strauss points out in her introduction to Burris’s article, the New Orleans school district is still significantly below the state average on the state tests.

Burris notes that even Douglas Harris is cautious about whether the New Orleans reforms are “scalable.” Funding increased by almost $1,400 per pupil. That mattered, though Harris doesn’t know how much it mattered. Second, Harris warns that the situation in New Orleans was unique and that its reforms cannot be extrapolated to other districts that might want to adopt the portfolio model or otherwise expand charters. “New Orleans,” he said, “was uniquely situated for these reforms to work. The district was extremely low-performing, and pretty much everyone agreed that some type of major change was in order. It’s easier to improve from such a low starting point. … I don’t think we can extrapolate New Orleans to most of the country. It’s more like a best-case scenario.”

Burris reports that the Network for Public Education commissioned Bruce Baker of Rutgers University to review the Harris-Larsen report on NOLA.

The Baker report is here.

Baker faults Harris and Larsen for downplaying the role of extra funding and the importance of demographic change.

Baker reviews the effects of adding substantial new resources to a struggling district. He points out that in the case of New Orleans, a disproportionate share of the new funding went to administration and transportation. Because the teaching staff was young and inexperienced, the cost of instruction was unusually low and is probably not sustainable in the long run.

He also points out the dramatic decline of concentrated poverty in New Orleans. This in itself was an important “reform” which helped to boost outcomes.

As usual, things are more complicated than they seem. Any reformer who blithely suggests applying the New Orleans model to a city without a hurricane, without a huge boost in funding, and without positive demographic changes to reduce poverty, is likely to be disappointed.