"What Katrina did was it allowed us to think differently."
New Orleans has the most choice-friendly school system in the country, with more than 70 percent of its students attending charter schools. This was Hurricane Katrina's silver lining: After the long-failing school system was literally destroyed, it could be rebuilt from the ground up. Paul Pastorek, superintendent of Louisiana Schools since 2007, has been trying to shake up the education system not only in New Orleans but throughout the state through initiatives such as school board reform, assigning letter grades for all schools, and a new law that aims to cut red tape. For a video version of the interview, go to reason.tv/video/show/paul-pastorek-interview.
reason: What is at the very top of your reform list for education?
Paul Pastorek: The thing that we're most focused on is making decisions that are based on what's in the best interest of children and not necessarily what's in the best interest for adults.
reason: What are the specific programs that come out of that mentality?
Pastorek: One, for example, is to create more options for children. People want to provide a traditional monolithic school system and school district where it's easy on the adults to be able to deliver education in a format. The problem is, kids don't have choices. Kids get stuck in low-achieving, mediocre schools. So what we're really pushing for in Louisiana is to create many options for kids. We want to decentralize the school district. We want to create competition for the providing of services. Online courses, charter schools, vouchers—these are the kinds of things that, if we were only focused on what's in the best interest of kids, we would want to proliferate.
(Interview continues after the video.)
reason: What are the good outcomes that would come out of this?
Pastorek: I think when you create a more competitive environment, people are more likely to push to achieve the objectives that you've set out for them to achieve. If you have a noncompetitive environment, if you have a monopoly, you do not get effectiveness and efficiency. When you create options for parents, then people have to respond, and we've seen this in New Orleans where we have a tremendous amount of options for kids—we have charter, we have voucher. We're going to put in virtual schools here very shortly. When you create those options, parents will vote with their feet, and when teachers and principals realize that, they come together and they solve problems.
reason: Hurricane Katrina literally wiped out the existing school infrastructure. Can these reforms be done in less disastrous circumstances?
Pastorek: You know, I think we sort of focus on the wrong reason why New Orleans is successful. And we tend to think it's Katrina, but we had a system that was utterly failing for so long that people were fed up, and what Katrina did was it allowed us to think differently about what we could have. You could be in St. Louis, Missouri, and you could decide that we've had enough, and they did. And the state took those schools over, just like we took over in New Orleans. Now, how we took them over and what we did with them is a little bit different than what's going on in others. We really have relied on this more competitive model—more decentralized model—and we think that will drive results. And it has.
reason: What is the biggest obstacle to further decentralizing the control of the education system and empowering parents?
Pastorek: There are some real practical problems. Just to give you an example, in a school district that has, say, six schools, [if] you take one or two of those schools and convert them to charter schools and you take all the money that goes with those kids and give it to those charter schools, you necessarily deplete the district's ability to manage the other four schools. Because part of the money that goes to those charter schools now does not go to the central office overhead. So districts are afraid that when you start creating this competitive environment, they'll go out of business.
My answer is: It will go out of business as we know it, but they need to find new ways of doing their business and doing what's really important for the other four schools. The biggest inhibitor to being able to do this more choice-type environment is the existing system seeing its finances go away.