Monday, April 30, 2012

The Big Easy’s School Revolution

…the levees broke and the city was devastated, and out of that destruction came the need to build a new system, one that today is accompanied by buoyant optimism. Since 2006, New Orleans students have halved the achievement gap with their state counterparts. They are on track to, in the next five years, make this the first urban city in the country to exceed its state’s average test scores. The share of students proficient on state tests rose from 35 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2011; 40 percent of students attended schools identified by the state as “academically unacceptable” in 2011, down from 78 percent in 2005.

….Most of the buzz about the city’s reforms focuses on the banishment of organized labor and the proliferation of charter schools, which enroll nearly 80 percent of public school students, up from 1.5 percent pre-Katrina. But what really distinguishes New Orleans is how government has re­defined its role in education: stepping back from directly running schools and empowering educators to make the decisions about hours, curriculum and school culture that best drive student learning. Now, state and school-district officials mostly regulate and monitor — setting standards, ensuring equity and closing failing schools. Instead of a traditional school system, there is a system of schools in what officials liken to a fenced-in free market. Families have more choice about where their children can best succeed, they say, and educators have more opportunity to choose a school that best aligns with their approach.


The population of New Orleans changed pre and post-Katrina so it’s difficult to compare pre and post-Katrina test scores; although given the state of the schools pre-Katrina it’s hard to believe that the schools have not greatly improved. What really drives innovation, however, is not a simple substitution of private for public but a system substitution of competition for monopoly. The key therefore is to expand charters and voucher programs.

The state of Louisiana just passed a voucher program that although limited to poor and middle class students in failing schools will offer as many as 380,000 vouchers to be used at private schools or apprenticeships. Indiana has passed a potentially even larger program that would make about 500,000 students voucher-eligible. Keep in mind that at present there are 50 million public school students and only 220,000 voucher students nationwide.

My ideal program would fund students not schools and would make vouchers available to all students on a non-discriminatory basis. We are far from that ideal but we are slowly moving in the right direction. Charters and the expansion of voucher programs around the country are starting to bring more competition, dynamism and evolutionary experimentation to the field of education.

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