MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. New Orleans has become the center of an education revolution. More than 70 percent of public school students there attend a charter school and the number of kids remaining in traditional public schools is shrinking fast.
As this experiment moves forward, New Orleans has confronted questions that dog the charter school movement nationwide. Are charters welcoming the most challenging students, especially those in special education? NPR's Larry Abramson has the story.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Parents in post-Katrina New Orleans can pick and choose from a smorgasbord of schools with different approaches, different cultures. By many measures, this educational marketplace has improved student achievement, especially in the city's many charter schools. But has performance for some come at the expense of other students?
KELLY FISHER: Noah, what are you listening to right now? Your MP3 player? Would you like to go play the piano?
NOAH FISHER: No.
FISHER: No? You don't want to?
ABRAMSON: Though Noah Fisher is 10 years old, he still listens to nursery rhymes. That's just one indication of the profound challenges he faces.
FISHER: Noah's been diagnosed with autism. He's also blind and he also has some feeding issues and developmentally delayed.
ABRAMSON: Kelly Fisher, Noah's mother, says when her family moved down to New Orleans in 2009, they expected Noah would need the same kind of intensive help that he got at his old school in Indiana. For help in finding the right school, they turned to the Recovery School District, the state-run agency that is the closest thing New Orleans has to a traditional district.
FISHER: Because I came from a traditional program, I thought, oh, that's my local special ed coordinator. That's the person that knows what's in the city and can direct me towards the schools that would be best for Noah.
ABRAMSON: But the Fishers say New Orleans' open choice system left them totally on their own when it came to finding a school for Noah. In theory, they could find any charter they wanted, but the best charters are full, so they ended up on waiting lists. Father Bob Fisher says the central district seemed powerless.
ROBERT FISHER: The director was just scrambling around making phone calls. Actually, at one point, ran out in the hallway and grabbed somebody and said, hey, do you have an opening at your school?
ABRAMSON: The Fishers say they kept looking for a school that could help Noah. Finally, they ended up at Lafayette Academy, a charter school.
DANIEL THOMAS: Where is that button?
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1: It's 9:52 a.m.
ABRAMSON: Here, Noah has a full time aide named Daniel Thomas. He and Noah are taking a break from class, walking outside on a nice fall day.
THOMAS: Sweep your cane. There's a big crack in the sidewalk.
FISHER: (Singing) Did she ask you to come in, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
ABRAMSON: At Lafayette, the Fishers say Noah has the help he needs. They suspect that other schools simply did not want to spend the money needed to hire an aide and were not interested in accommodating Noah. Lafayette Principal Mickey Landry admits it is challenging for any school to cover the costs of special ed.
MICKEY LANDRY: The state tops out its financing for special needs students at about $18,000 a year, but some students cost us significantly more than that, sometimes as much as $40,000.
ABRAMSON: You can't say, sorry, we can only provide $18,000 worth of services?
LANDRY: Oh, that's right. We do whatever we have to do for a child. That's right.
ABRAMSON: Landry says he simply found a way to give Noah the support he needs. According to many parents, other schools do not work as hard to follow the law, which says all schools must be open to all students. The Fishers have joined a class action lawsuit charging that the New Orleans school system excludes special ed students.
Eden Heilman, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, is suing the Louisiana Department of Education, which set up the post-Katrina school system.
EDEN HEILMAN: The state kind of abandoned their responsibilities to students with disabilities in New Orleans. I mean, in any other school district where, for example, you have one single district, you have to do things like monitoring and compliance reviews.
ABRAMSON: But Superintendent John White says that's changing. White just took over as superintendent for the Recovery School District a few months ago. He points out that test scores for special education have improved dramatically since Katrina and that these children were terribly neglected before the storm.
But he admits those scores are still much lower than they should be. White says it is tough for his agency to oversee a system of independent schools.
JOHN WHITE: I think it's fair to say that a market system always has the challenges of how do we ensure that the most vulnerable, the most traditionally underserved are served well in that system?
ABRAMSON: White is putting a series of reforms in place. They are supposed to show whether some schools are experiencing high turnover because they're pushing students away. Many educators in New Orleans say the parents' complaints ignore the other side of this unique education system, the creativity the charters have brought.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #2: All right. It is (unintelligible) time.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
ABRAMSON: This is KIPP New Orleans Leadership Primary School in the city's French Quarter. The special ed enrollment here is about nine percent, similar to the city average. KIPP has posted some of the most impressive gains in the city. The school says its mission includes kids like eight year old Benjamin Camp.
BENJAMIN CAMP: Hi, Mom. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
ABRAMSON: Benjamin is sweet, but he's had behavior problems for years and was recently diagnosed with autism. His grandmother, Carmella Camp, says some nursery schools turned Benjamin away as too challenging, but this charter school never suggested he go anywhere else.
CARMELLA CAMP: Never, never, never, ever. Still haven't heard it. He was in a few - two schools and they say they couldn't handle him, you know.
ABRAMSON: But KIPP has also faced charges that it pushes some students out. The school has a firm discipline policy that can be tough for some students to follow. Families must agree to a commitment to excellence, which includes getting their kids to school on time and becoming part of the education process.
Rhonda Aluise, executive director of KIPP New Orleans, insists this approach doesn't exclude anyone.
RHONDA ALUISE: So there is not this requirement or if you come to KIPP, you must do this. This is - here's our vision for what a school can do. Come be a part of this with us.
ABRAMSON: But this is still a promise that traditional public schools seldom require. The stories of the 10 families in this suit raise questions that go well beyond New Orleans. Detroit is using New Orleans as a model for reform and has moved to citywide school choice and hopes to open dozens of charters. Many Detroit teachers have reacted like Ivy Bailey, who spoke with me this summer.
IVY BAILEY: It's a public institution. We take any and every child. We know children learn at different levels. But charter schools, they can pick who they want to take. Either they can say, well, you know, Ms. Jones, this is not working for us. You need to take your child somewhere else.
ABRAMSON: Whatever happens with the New Orleans lawsuit, charter groups will have to wrestle with the continuing perception that they are not open to all. Larry Abramson, NPR News.