Friday Afternoon Maps: New Orleans, Race, and School Locations

September 10, 2011

A few weeks back, I noticed several tweets about this recent article in Harvard Education Review which takes a look at racial politics and the rebuilding of New Orleans in the Post-Katrina era.

Here’s the dropbox link tweeted by Diane Ravitch:

The article is by Kristen Buras of Georgia State University. Buras, like at least a few others, points out that Hurricane Katrina forced the greatest housing displacement in poor black neighborhoods of New Orleans. But, perhaps more disturbing was that in the post Katrina period, redevelopment… and especially redevelopment of the new, mixed delivery schooling system largely ignored those same areas, leading to a system where access to schooling is very disparately distributed geographically.

In her article Buras went to the painstaking steps of hand plotting the locations of post-Katrina schools (See her Figure 3, page 321) to make her point about school locations, and that map certainly does so, though a good before-after might be even clearer.

I’ve been meaning to do some pre-post Katrina school mapping for some time now, but wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to look at, or how I might organize the information. Well, here’s what a little Friday afternoon play has yielded.

First, I used US Census 2000 and American Community Survey 2005 data to set up my background. The background carves New Orleans into Public Use Micro Data Areas (PUMAS, from, boundary files from For the background shading, I used IPUMS data to estimate the percent of resident 5 to 17 year olds in each PUMA that were Black in 2000 and 2005 – pre-Katrina conditions. Those red areas to the right hand side, over toward the lower 9th ward and to the Northeast are almost entirely black, for school aged population. While the entire city has relatively high shares of black population, as Buras notes, uptown and the Garden District are certainly somewhat less black than other parts of the city.

In the first map here, I show the locations and total enrollments of schools (indication of available slots) for the year 2000. I use yellow triangles to indicate if a school is a charter school. There were a few, even in 2000. School locations are based on latitude and longitude data from the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data (

Map 1. Year 2000 distribution of traditional public and charter schools in New Orleans

In the first figure, there are a significant number of decent size schools in the deeper red (higher % black) areas of the city. Citywide, there are a handful of charters scattered around.

Now, here’s the distribution of charters and traditional public schools in 2010. Yes, the city as a whole lost a lot of population (but did rebound somewhat between 2006 and 2010, hence the interest in 2010). Quite strikingly, there are simply very few schools of any size now available in those deep red zones (shading still based on pre-Katrina population). And while there are charters scatted throughout the city, even the highest concentration of those schools is in areas with marginally lower pre-Katrina black populations. There are generally more schools and more larger schools in those neighborhoods.

Again, circle size indicates enrollment size, and if the circle has a yellow triangle over it, the school is a charter school.  Further, I’ve kept the size scaling of circles on the same scale in this map as in the previous one. So, if a circle is smaller, it’s enrollment is smaller.

Map 2. Year 2010 distribution of traditional public and charter schools in New Orleans

Now, it is indeed hard to untangle supply from demand here. One can make the argument that the population didn’t return, therefore there is no demand for schools in those areas previously inhabited by the city’s lowest income black populations. Alternatively, one can as reasonably (and more so after reading Buras) argue that the dearth of available public services may provide some explanation for why families have not returned, or have not been able to return.

One might argue that because there exist so many “schools of choice” throughout the city, that geographic location doesn’t really matter. Ya’ just got to travel a bit. Sign up for one of those great schools over there! But research has consistently shown that even in “choice’ models geographic location/proximity is central to enrollment decisions.  Location matters. And having quality options nearby is important. In fact, parents will often favor location over publicly available “quality” measures, continuing enrollment in schools identified as persistently failing if/when other options are simply not geographically accessible. Then again, those “quality” measures aren’t always particularly meaningful.

This population density map for individuals 18 and under suggests comparable population densities in those areas where school density (especially charter school density) has remained much lower:

Authors such as Henry Levin have explained on numerous occasions that for a choice model to yield equitable distribution of opportunity, consumers must have equitable access to information on schools and equitable mobility among options. Clearly, equitable geographic access is out the window in Post-Katrina New Orleans. Yeah, I think we already knew this from various media reports. But sometimes I have to play with the data and map them myself for it to really sink in. Whether driven by geographic assignment or by choice enrollment, the distribution of educational opportunities in Map 2 above is troublesome.

Far more troublesome is that so many have publicly pitched this New Orleans mixed delivery model as the key to the future of urban education.

Like Buras, I’m pretty damn skeptical that an education system that has redistributed educational opportunity in the ways seen between Map 1 and Map 2 above is all that.  Just pondering and mapping on a Friday afternoon as the sun finally emerges in the rain-soaked Northeast.

Related maps on school aged population loss here:

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Bruce D. Baker

Bruce D. Baker is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where he teaches courses in school finance policy and district business management. His recent research focuses on state aid allocation policies and practices, with particular...