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Explainer: The Disconnect on Opportunity Youth There are not 26,000 young adults out-of-school or unemployed in NOLA

In the face of overwhelming evidence that the New Orleans’ education reforms have worked, critics have been forced to change their messaging strategy. Instead of denying the results outright, opponents now maintain the district’s academic gains amount to a Pyrrhic victory, bought at the expense of local teachers and the city’s most disadvantaged students.

Thus, every anti-reform diatribe written about New Orleans this summer portrayed the mass layoffs of teachers after Katrina as part of a diabolical plan to privatize the school system (which as I’ve shown, wasn’t the case). You might have also noticed critics like Karren Harper Royal throwing around this statistic, too:

It’s easy to imagine folks out there reading that stat and thinking to themselves: “26,000 New Orleans kids are either out of school or unemployed?!? Guess the reforms aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.” Of course, that’s exactly the point critics are trying to make – and they keep making it, again and again.

The first to raise it was NPR’s anti-edreform beat reporter, Anya Kamenetz, who asked the question of whether the city’s decentralized charter-based system was behind its high number of disconnected youth:

Anya Kamenetz got the ball rolling...
Anya Kamenetz got the ball rolling…

Later, Jennifer “Edushyster” Berkshire used this statistic in her piece bashing New Orleans in Salon that I picked apart back in August:

Edushyster said it.
…Edushyster followed up…

Andrea Gabor also used it as ammunition against the city’s post-Katrina reforms in her error-filled op-ed for the New York Times two weeks ago:

Andrea Gabor said it too.
…Andrea Gabor couldn’t help herself…

And soon thereafter, another one of my favorites, Mercedes Schneider, regurgitated this stat in one of her legendary rants against the RSD on her blog:

....and Mercedes goes four for four.
….and Mercedes brought up the rear.

There’s just one problem: they’re not actually getting the facts right.

Earlier this spring, two studies brought attention to the plight of so-called “Disconnected [or Opportunity] Youth,” defined as 16-24 year-olds who are neither in school, nor working. The first report was issued by the Cowen Institute at Tulane University and the second was issued by the Social Science Research Council. Both were based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) 2013. Both found that approximately 18.2% of the 16-24 year olds (about 26,200 people) in the New Orleans Metropolitan Area qualified as “Disconnected Youth.”

However, the Census Bureau defines the New Orleans Metropolitan Statistical Area as the 3,203 square miles of land that makes up the toe of Louisiana’s boot [see the region in yellow below]. It includes eight parishes – Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, and St. Tammany – which together had a population of 1,241,949 in 2013, according to the ACS.

For reference, the 2013 ACS estimated New Orleans’ population as 376,006 – i.e., the city only accounted for about 30% of the total population in the New Orleans Metro Area.

That’s not to say that New Orleans doesn’t have an unacceptably high number of young people disengaged from school or the workforce, but the fact is we don’t know that number. What is clear though is that the number certainly isn’t 26,000 and critics like Royal, Kamenetz, Berkshire and Gabor shouldn’t be using those stats to paint New Orleans and its school reforms in a negative light.

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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