Here's the paradox of pre-Katrina New Orleans: For its ten million pie-eyed vacationers trolling the sticky streets of the French Quarter, the city was a pulsating, profit-making pleasure dome. For a few bucks, the city would happily serve up just about anything you could scarf down.
Yet right across the Mississippi River, the Orleans Parish School Board made the Department of Motor Vehicles look like a model of efficiency. A toxic swamp of fraud and incompetence, the school board was tilting on the edge of bankruptcy, when Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of the city, taking the bureaucracy with it.
School choice swept in as a replacement, and nine years later, test scores and graduation rates are on the rise. With red tape cut, and the teachers union largely out of the picture, the quality of public education has made steady gains in the Big Easy. "We're going to be the first mostly black city to outperform its mostly white state in the history of this country," says Julie Lause, co-founder of Crescent City Schools and principal of Harriet Tubman Charter School in Algiers.
New Orleans could turn out to be the greatest turnaround story in the history of American public education. But the nation's first all-charter district is fragile, and the reforms behind its success could be pushed back – or even reversed over time. "It's something we have to be very careful of," warns Neerav Kingsland, a school choice advocate with New Schools for New Orleans. "A system like this could be undermined by a death by a thousand regulatory cuts."
The city's charter school system continues to struggle to find the right balance between regulation and autonomy. Although the old education bureaucracy has been drastically downsized from the pre-Katrina era, the new system retains a byzantine bureaucratic structure. And new regulations are chipping away at some of the freedoms enjoyed by students and schools alike.
Some rules address issues of equity, while others set limits on the very idea of school choice. The school board has standardized the application procedure for all charter schools. Student discipline procedures are now adjudicated at the state level, with common standards for suspensions and expulsions at every charter school. More controversially, students can no longer transfer to another charter school after six weeks into the semester – a prohibition that seems to strike at the very notion of school choice.
Can libertarian concerns about freedom find a balance with progressive notions of fairness – without threatening nine years of hard-won educational gains? So far, the progress in New Orleans is hard to deny, and has silenced most critics.
But there is much more to be done. Today, only a few New Orleans schools have earned Lousiania's highest marks for quality education. Many charter schools are on the verge of failing, and some will have to be closed. "We're not yet there, we're not yet perfect," says Lause. "We aren't an A-school system yet. But I think we're on the way."
Produced, edited, shot, and narrated by Todd Krainin.
Runs about 7:30 minutes.
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