Marc Morial was in Fort Wayne this week to promote the National Urban League's 12-point job program. But the opportunity to ask the former mayor of New Orleans about charter schools just as Indiana debates dramatically expanding charters here was too good to pass up.
Morial was mayor from 1994 to 2002 – before Hurricane Katrina unleashed floodwaters over the city and devastated an already struggling school system. Since then, the state claimed oversight of the schools through the new Recovery School District. Of 88 public schools, 61 are charter schools – the highest charter percentage in the nation.
President and CEO of the Urban League since 2003, Morial had targeted reform of the New Orleans schools himself. But a bid to amend the city's charter and eliminate the mayor's two-term limit failed before he could seize control of the schools, as mayors in New York City and Chicago have done.
Asked to assess the progress of new charter schools, Morial said they aren't the miracle solution, but acknowledged that they have improved. He noted some significant changes post-Katrina. The enrollment is significantly lower – from 80,000 to 90,000 students before the storm to about 35,000 today. The percentage of low-income students is still high, but not as high as it was, he said. The new schools also have drawn students from private and parochial schools, likely bolstering achievement results with increased parental involvement.
Morial said that the Urban League sponsors its own charters – a grade 6-12 school in Springfield, Mass., and an elementary school in Pittsburgh. He said the key to success in the schools was innovation, but noted that it doesn't exist in all charter school. He also acknowledged that they create tension among public schools.