A Surprising New Look at School Spending in New Orleans

It's not terribly surprising that school spending went up after Hurricane Katrina and as New Orleans shifted to a charter school-based system. It’s <em>how</em> the spending increased that’s worth a closer look.

Just when you think you have a pretty good idea of how schools in New Orleans changed after Hurricane Katrina, along comes some new research that rocks your world a little bit.

Such was the case when the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (housed at Tulane University) released the latest in its long-running series of indispensable studies. This time, the researchers looked at school spending.

In a nutshell, spending went up during the recovery years and after New Orleans shifted to a charter school-based system. That’s not terribly surprising. It’s how the spending increased that’s worth a closer look. Three highlights:

1) Schools spent quite a bit more on administrators

It wasn’t just that they hired more administrators – which they did – but they also paid them more than their predecessors in pre-Katrina New Orleans. We’re not just talking school principals but all the administrative roles across individual charter schools and networks, from research and evaluation staff to information technology specialists.

2) While spending on administrators went up, on a per-pupil basis, spending on classroom instruction went down.

How did that happen? It’s worth reading the whole report for details on this one. In general, teachers of the same experience level earn more today than they did in the old system. However, the typical teacher has less experience, hence a lower average salary. Also, schools are spending less on benefits. The biggest driver is lower pension costs, as most schools today opt-out of the state teacher retirement system, which has become badly underfunded and expensive, making it a poor bargain for new entrants.

3) Transportation costs are up $300 per student, per year.

While that’s a sizable figure, some increase was to be expected as New Orleans shifted away from attendance zone schools to an all-choice system that permits families to apply citywide. Moving students across greater distances costs more.

What does it all mean?

The authors of the study pose some questions about scalability for charters, given that hopes of lower overhead in charter systems aren’t being fulfilled, in this study or others. That’s a topic well worth discussing.

But for New Orleans, I think the key question is this: Did these spending changes contribute to the large improvements in student achievement over the past decade?

It’s possible that simply spending more, in general, led to better outcomes. However, the authors are quite skeptical of that hypothesis. Critics of charter schools and New Orleans’ strategy for reform may also argue that it confirms their worst suspicions – that when school operators get this much autonomy, they spend a lot on overhead and pay for it by hiring cheaper, less experienced teachers.

It’s also possible that investing in greater administrative capacity was a smart move, instructionally. Teachers are constantly worried about their load of paperwork, discipline, and non-instructional duties. Maybe it provided greater support to teachers or freed them to focus on their classrooms rather than distractions. Maybe it made the schools feel safer and operate more efficiently. Maybe it helped school teams look more closely at data trends and incorporate them into teaching.

I don’t know. But we now have a pretty good idea of what didn’t happen. A bloated, centralized, failing school system was not replaced by a leaner, meaner, low-overhead set of charter networks that cut the fat and pushed funding down to the classroom. Something else happened. And yet it wasn’t a failure. Students are doing much better.

This study reminds us that it’s too easy to buy into existing narratives about education—and that the real story is usually far more complex. In the case of New Orleans, there is still plenty of the story left to be learned. What’s to account for its improvement? What can other cities and school systems learn from its experience? We all should be grateful to groups like the Education Research Alliance for asking these questions, and pushing us to scrutinize the usual answers.

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