AuthorGarda, Robert A. Jr.

Introduction 1140 I. Equity and Selective Admission Schools 1142 II. The Demographics and Admission Practices of New Orleans' Selective Admission Schools 1147 A. Lusher Charter School 1148 B. Ben Franklin High School 1150 C. Audubon Charter School 1151 D. Lake Forest Charter School 1153 III. Lessons and Recommendations 1154 A. Admission Policies and Student Body Demographics 1155 B. Other Factors 1156 C. Recommendations for New Orleans 1159 i. Location and Transportation 1159 ii. Admission Criteria 1159 Conclusion 1164 INTRODUCTION

The New Orleans education system is unique in many ways. It is the only school district in the United States that is comprised of nearly all charter schools. (1) Its schools have one of the highest rates of economically disadvantaged students -- 86% -- and the city overall has the highest poverty rate among the fifty largest metro areas. (2) It also has the highest rate of students in private schools -- 25%. (3) New Orleans has, in short, one of "the most unusual school system[s] in America." (4) But New Orleans is similar to other large metropolitan school districts in one critical way: it has controversial selective admission schools. (5)

Half of the states have selective admission high schools and there are roughly 165 such schools nationwide. (6) New Orleans is again, unique, in that it has both selective admissions high schools and selective admission primary schools. The four academically selective admission schools in New Orleans -- Benjamin Franklin High School (Ben Franklin), Lusher Charter School (Lusher), Lake Forest Elementary Charter School (Lake Forest) and Audubon Charter School (Audubon)--have been the subject of numerous critiques, such as under-serving students with disabilities, (7) failing to disclose the names of their admissions tests, (8) among many others. (9) This Essay does not cover these topics or the propriety of selective admission schools in general. (10) These schools are, quite simply, here to stay. Rather, this Essay determines whether these schools' selective admission policies and practices, or other factors, account for the racial and socioeconomic disparity between these schools and the New Orleans public school system as a whole.

New Orleans selective admission schools, just like selective admission schools throughout the United States, are economically and racially unrepresentative of the school districts in which they exist. (11) There are currently only eight "A" rated public schools in New Orleans: the academically selective admission schools constitute four of those schools. (12) And these schools are much whiter and wealthier than the public schools as a whole. (13) Only two high schools in New Orleans are not majority Black -- Lusher and Ben Franklin. (14) In 2019, White students made up nine percent of the student body, but eight in ten attended schools rated A or B by the state accountability metric. (15)

This Essay examines these demographic differences and then compares the admission criteria and practices of each school. While the admission standards certainly account for some of the demographic variance between these schools and the other public schools, 1 conclude that other factors, such as location and transportation, play a larger role than admission criteria in explaining the racial and socioeconomic differences between these schools.

Part I of this Essay identifies the racial and socioeconomic composition of New Orleans, its public schools, and its selective admission schools and shows that these schools are unrepresentative of the school system as a whole. It also identifies the admission policies and practices of each school. Part II determines the impact of the admission practices on the school demographics and considers other factors impacting the racial and socioeconomic composition of the schools. It concludes with policy suggestions, many tried in other cities, to create more representative selective admission schools.


    Selective admission schools are controversial across the United States because they routinely admit significantly less Black, Hispanic and poor students than the school districts they serve. There are long-simmering concerns in nearly every city that their selective admission schools discriminate against poor, and Black and Hispanic students and exacerbate segregation. (16) School districts and states have made numerous attempts to address the racial and socioeconomic disparities, such as the use of quotas, but face tremendous political opposition and court challenges. (17)

    These same concerns have long existed in New Orleans. New Orleans historically had a large number of selective admission schools--technically called "City Wide Access Schools" but more commonly known as magnet schools. (18) Prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there were 25 magnet schools with varying degrees of selectivity. Unlike magnet schools in most parts of the country that were created to desegregate school districts, New Orleans magnet schools were defined more by their programs than their enrollment. In 1998, nearly 90% of White students in the New Orleans public school system attended magnet high schools (while making up only 6% of the high school population) compared to 40% of African Americans (while making up 90% of the high school population). (19)

    The most selective of these schools--particularly Ben Franklin -- were controversial because, according to opponents, they created a caste system discriminating in favor of Whites and high-income African Americans. (20) In 1996, two complaints were filed with the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights alleging racial discrimination in magnet school admissions. As a result, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) considered significant alterations to the admission policies of its magnet schools in 1998. (21) After a series of racially divisive school board meetings, the OPSB banned the use of racially discriminatory IQ tests and required magnet schools to use multiple admission factors beyond mere test scores. (22) But it also permitted over-enrolled schools to admit the top scoring students on the new approved admission standards to fill half of the available seats and conduct a lottery for the remaining spots. (23)

    The formal admission policies of 1998 were replaced after Hurricane Katrina wiped away the school system, but selective admission schools and their admission practices persisted, as did the controversy over racial and socioeconomic discrimination. (24)

    Selective programs are always controversial, but selective primary and secondary schools are "particularly contentious, given that they are believed to have a unique institutional role to play in providing, shaping, and either expanding or restricting opportunity to large numbers of citizens at a very early stage of their lives and development." (25) With such high perceived stakes, (26) the fight for admission into selective admission schools is fierce, as is the desire to keep these schools as high performing as possible.

    Selective schools in New Orleans, and across the country, use a variety of factors to select students. But one method they all have in common is placing great weight on standardized test results. Test performance, it is believed, is the best (and sometimes only) objective indicator of student ability and ensures a student body that can handle the rigorous curriculum at a selective admission school. (27) Nearly the entire controversy surrounding selective admission schools revolves around the use of these tests. (28)

    The use of standardized tests to determine admission to selective schools is controversial because poor and Hispanic and Black students do not perform as well on them as higher income and White and Asian students. (29) But these discrepancies are not exclusively the result of ability or motivation --critical assumptions that underlay the use of tests in the first place--because these tests are simply not the indicator of talent and effort that many believe. The disparity in standardized test results between races and income levels are explained by many factors other than ability, such as: stereotype threat, (30) family background, (31) social capital, (32) substandard education prior to taking the test, (33) test preparation measures, (34) test reliability, (35) and opportunity gaps such as housing insecurity, food insecurity, parental unemployment, and access to health care. (36) The use of tests, which is merely a snapshot of one moment, is also problematic because "motivation to learn is not fixed, and both talent and hard work can be cultivated." (37)

    Using test scores for high school admission, as Lusher and Ben Franklin do, is particularly problematic in New Orleans because of the disparity of educational opportunity in the city. New Orleans is exclusively "school choice," meaning students must affirmatively select the school they wish to attend. (38) There are no default neighborhood schools. Most wealthy and White students in New Orleans send their children to private schools. (39) And those that remain in public schools "gather a more diverse set of information about schools than lower-income parents, [and are] less likely to use other parent, family, and friends as sources than their lower income counterparts." (40) Low-income and African American students are more likely to enroll in lower performing schools, (41) which means by the time selective admission tests are taken, high-income families have either attended private (42) or high-performing public schools and are more likely to score well on the entrance exam. High school admission tests, therefore, may be measuring educational disparity more than ability or effort.

    Using tests for young children, as is done in Lake Forest, Lusher, and Audubon, is also problematic. Standardized tests for young children are notoriously bad predictors of future...

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