CHICAGO -- The nation's first charter-only school district is taking shape in New Orleans - an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent an urban district that was in an academic and financial sinkhole long before Hurricane Katrina.
As education officials scramble to prepare for an estimated 24,000 students expected to return to New Orleans schools in the coming school year, they are tapping into the expertise of Chicago's charter leaders, who will help launch this extraordinary experiment over the next two years.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, visited Chicago recently, touring one of the city's most successful charter high schools and recruiting charter founders who might be willing to expand their operations into a city that is starting its school system from scratch.
"I'm here to look at your school because when we rebuild ... we want to build something better from the rubble," Landrieu told high school students Friday at Noble Street Charter, who were gathered for their monthly town hall meeting. "We're talking about building it all with public charter schools."
The state seized control of nearly all of New Orleans' schools in November, sweeping 107 of the city's low-performing public schools into a state-run recovery district. Before Katrina hit in late August, about 60,000 students - most of them poor and African-American - attended 128 public schools in Orleans Parish.
Now about 12,000 students are attending 25 public schools in the city. The number of students is expected to double by August with the opening of about 50 schools, more than 40 of which are expected to be charters overseen by the state or the local district.
A Chicago-based national organization led by Greg Richmond, who until last year managed the development of charter schools for the Chicago Public Schools, will be helping to create a network of quality charter schools. Richmond is joined by John Ayers, the former executive director of Leadership for Quality Education, another charter advocacy group that helped put Chicago on the map in the fledgling world of charter schools in 1996.
Richmond said his organization will target charter operators that have an established record, rather than opening the door to all comers and handing over New Orleans buildings to operators unprepared for the challenges of running a school in a ruined city.
"There's nothing automatic about quality in charter schools," said Richmond. "It still requires hard work by dedicated people. But what charter schools do is give those talented people a chance to excel, in a way that doesn't always happen in urban districts."
New Orleans won't face the kind of political challenges that stymie charter reforms in other big-city districts such as Chicago or New York - contentious school closings and fierce opposition from teachers unions over contract rights. The system's 4,000 teachers are scattered, and 30 of the district's buildings were ravaged by flood waters.
Still, the obstacles remain daunting.
The district was nearly $400 million in debt as of April. An estimated $1 billion is needed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild the schools left standing. Katrina annihilated the district's tax base, leaving the financial burden of opening schools to the state and private donors.
Landrieu said strong schools are critical in luring families and businesses back to the city, but re-creating the educational system is just one more Herculean task in a place where entire neighborhoods must be rebuilt from scratch.
"We've got a whole different set of conditions, and it's both a blessing and a curse," she said.
Creating an all-charter system will be the ultimate testing ground for advocates, who believe that a network of well-managed and independent public schools can break the monopoly that exists in many large districts. But Richmond said transformation of New Orleans schools was born of desperation rather than politics.
"The education leaders in Louisiana have not been charter school proponents, and they're not doing this to make any kind of point about how good charter schools are," he said. "They just want good schools, and they've seen what we've been able to do in Chicago when you demand quality."
Tracy Dell'Angela writes for the Chicago Tribune.