How New Orleans Proved Urban-Education Reform Can Work
New Orleans provided the largest-scale experiment in charter education in the United States — a complete overhaul, undertaken all at once. The results have vindicated the strategy. As the authors concluded, "We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time."
…New Orleans is the breakthrough in social equity liberals have been waiting for. "We tried to make urban districts better for 50 years. We tried more funding, more accountability, more pipelines of talent, more [professional development], more training, more certification rules, and on and on and on. After all of that time, and all of those cities, we still don't have a single high-performing urban district in America. Not one," Andy Smarick, an education-policy analyst, told me. "But the very first time we try an all-charter system, the first time ever, we get dramatically better results in only a decade." And some liberals, like the Obama administration, have encouraged and praised its success.
But in many precincts of the left, school reform has provoked unrelenting opposition. That is because their structure cuts crossways through the liberal ideal of governance. On the positive side, charters break the link between property and school assignment. Students can choose to attend their school of choice within their city rather than be assigned into neighborhood schools, whose boundaries reflect the deep racial and socioeconomic segregation of entrenched housing patterns. In neighborhood-based systems, guaranteed enrollment in a school in a wealthy neighborhood is a valuable perk that is itself priced into housing — wealthy parents literally buy access to the best public schools.
But charters also break the traditional union model of teacher compensation. That model gives teachers high, and virtually absolute, levels of job security, and pays them based on years of tenure. There is no empirical basis to believe that this is an optimal method to recruit and retain quality teachers. Evidence shows that experience improves performance only after the first few years, after which longer tenure does not produce better outcomes. American teachers are much more likely than the teachers in other, higher-performing countries to graduate from the bottom tier of their college class, and the hiring process for teaching is far less competitive than for other fields. But teacher unions and their allies have lionized the old neighborhood-based model and its inflexible contracts.
Andrea Gabor, a severe longtime critic of charter schools, has an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times purporting to debunk the "myth" of New Orleans's successful reforms. Gabor's argument, as Peter Cook shows, is riddled with important factual errors. She dismisses Louisiana for having low state standards, ignoring its implementation of the Common Core; she claims "no agency is responsible for keeping track of all kids," when in fact two agencies perform this very function; she charges the charters with "leav[ing] little room for African-American leadership," when in fact more than half the leaders of the city's charters are African-American; and so on. Gabor advertises her bad faith by describing charters as "privatization" — an inaccurate term rejected by supporters and one that confuses readers by describing a different policy. (Privatization is a term used to describe using public money for private-school vouchers.) Her op-ed uses a mix of anecdotes and unsubstantiated generalizations to create the impression that she is refuting New Orleans's proven gains.
Obviously, charter schools have not solved the problem of entrenched poverty in America. What they have demonstrated is the ability to develop the academic potential of the most underprivileged children, defying the fatalism of the right and the left. They have not proven the ability to scale up their successes to every single urban school district in America for the simple reason that it is impossible to prove something that has not yet happened. The debate at this point lies between those who want to build on the movement's demonstrable progress and those determined to deny, in the face of mounting evidence, that it is even possible.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans's groundbreaking and highly successful effort to replace its traditional-district-based system with a system of charters and choice deserves some attention.
But let's begin by focusing on recent developments mostly outside of NOLA. It's critical to appreciate that this shift (from a single government operator to an array of nonprofit operators) is happening in many other locations—and it's being done well.
This very good July Politico article describes D.C.'s thriving charter sector. It's educating nearly half of the city's kids, serving a more disadvantaged population than the district, producing better academic results, and offering a diverse range of schools. On this last point, a fantastic new study by Michael McShane and Jenn Hatfield shows that chartering is producing a wide variety of schools in city after city (contra claims that charters are cookie-cutter).
A number of cities are showing that the charter sector is best able to reliably create and grow high-performing schools.
…But the most interesting and difficult question is this: What must happen for chartering to become the system? In Detroit, district enrollment is 15 percent of its peak, and the charter sector is educating more than half the city's kids. Detroit's leaders are working to create a new overarching system. Some skeptics say chartering's fatal flaw is that it inevitably fails to educate some students. But a new report on New York City charters finds that more charters are "backfilling" to serve the most at-risk kids.
…But let's get back to NOLA. This city is showing that these ideas can be brought to life and dramatically improve student results. A brand-new report from New Schools for New Orleans and Public Impact describes the systemic changes and heartening gains. Three new articles in Education Next offer even more hope.
…In the weeks ahead, we're going to see lots written about NOLA's reforms. We should celebrate the gains and address the shortcomings. But we should also remember that New Orleans is one chapter in a much bigger story about the remaking of American urban public schooling.