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Obama Brings Spotlight Back to New Orleans Charter School

kingcharter.jpgStudents at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward are seasoned hosts of dignitaries. After overcoming Mother Nature and bureaucratic resistance two years ago to re-open the school that was drowned in the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, Principal Doris R. Hicks and her staff and students have hosted dozens of famous visitors. Former president George W. Bush even stopped by on the second anniversary of the storm.

A visit to King, with its remarkable story of recovery and success in educating poor, African-American children, is irresistible to any politician. I spent lots of time at King in the 2007-2008 school year, writing about the return of the school to the Lower Ninth Ward.

So it was no surprise to hear that President Barack Obama will visit King on Thursday during his trip to NOLA.

In a city that is chock full of charter schools now, King stands out for a few reasons. For one, the school, which had been a regular public school pre-Katrina, is still staffed almost entirely with teachers who worked at King before the storm. And most of its students are the same as well, even though many did not move back into homes in the Lower Ninth Ward when their families returned to New Orleans.

And just in time for the president's visit is a new report examining the ongoing promise and challenges of rebuilding public schools in New Orleans. Before the storm, the city was home to one of the nation's most troubled public school system.

The Southern Education Foundation is releasing "New Orleans Schools Four Years After Katrina: A Lingering Federal Responsibility," which argues that a lack of a robust local and state tax base threatens to undermine the progress that's been made in New Orleans' schools since the storm unless the feds commit to longer-term support for public education in the city.

Without assumption of responsibility by the federal government to help New Orleans schools continue to improve over the long haul by making necessary funds available, the progress made to date could become a "flash in the pan," to the detriment of all. Herein lies the challenge: Will our nation take advantage of the opportunity to test at scale the promise of public charter schools to improve learning outcomes of the students who need help the most? Will it harvest lessons about which aspects of New Orleans' changed system appear to account for the progress, and use those lessons to inform national policy formation in relation to public schools more generally and charter schools in particular? Or, with the passage of time, will the federal government walk away from this extraordinary opportunity to strengthen a school system literally from the group up?

What do you think the federal government's obligation is to continue supporting public education in New Orleans?

Photo credit: Sevans/Education Week

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