A Brighter Future for New Orleans Students
November 17, 2005
One of Albert Einstein's favorite sayings was "Out of difficulty, find opportunity." Political leaders in Louisiana appear to be following Einstein's wisdom as they rebuild the devastated region's troubled school system. Bipartisan support is building for a drastic overhaul of the New Orleans school system based on three principles: innovation, parental choice, and competition.
Before Hurricane Katrina hit, the New Orleans school system was plagued by corruption, mismanagement, and poor performance. The past two years witnessed the indictment of dozens of public school officials on various counts of fraud and corruption. The problems were so widespread that the FBI opened an office in the same building as the school board for the investigation. In a 2004 news conference, the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation announced that "parents will be astounded, shocked, and upset" by the "extensive number of crooks" preying on the school system.
Federal taxpayers should also be astounded. The U.S. Department of Education reported that $70 million in federal funds was misspent or lost in New Orleans. An accounting firm has been hired to sort through the finances of a school system that even Mayor Ray Nagin described as "broken beyond repair."
All of this took a serious toll on pubic school classrooms, where few children were receiving a quality education. Last year, 65 percent of New Orleans schools failed to meet the state's performance standard, compared to 11 percent of schools statewide. The state recently announced that, before Katrina, 68 of 110 New Orleans public schools had been judged "academically unacceptable" based on student test scores.
Given this abysmal performance, it's no surprise that many New Orleans families sent their children to private schools. In fact, nearly one out of every three New Orleans students was enrolled in a private school before Katrina; that's far higher than the national average of about one out of ten. Those with the financial means were able to escape the troubled public schools.
Many poor families were also seeking better schools for their children. In 1999, the non-profit Children's Scholarship Fund announced that 1,500 scholarships were available for low-income students in New Orleans. A lottery determined who would receive scholarships. More than 29,000 children applied - nearly one out of every four children who were eligible - from families with an average annual income of $18,000. Most of the 27,500 unlucky children who didn't win scholarships were forced to remain in the broken public schools.
But hope may now be on the horizon. As local lawmakers look to rebuild the city's school system, they're exploring new ways to deliver better educational opportunities to New Orleans children, rather than just rebuilding the same broken school system. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, underscored the historic importance of this effort. "It took the storm of a lifetime to create the opportunity of a lifetime; an opportunity to start anew in a thoughtful, organized and measured way that serves every child in New Orleans."
The state legislature is considering a proposal, supported by Gov. Blanco, to turn all of the low performing public schools in the Orleans parish school district into charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that agree to meet performance standards set by the state but are otherwise freed from the bureaucratic rules and regulations that encumber traditional school systems. More than one million children now attend charter schools in America, evidence of strong parental demand for alternatives to traditional public schools.
In New Orleans, the charter schools would be led and operated by new management. The leaders of the new schools could survey the thousands of charter schools operating across the country and recreate promising models. A system of charter schools throughout New Orleans would give parents the opportunity to choose their child's school, introducing competition into the system. Good schools would thrive and failing schools would be forced to improve or suffer the consequences.
Some local leaders are calling for more aggressive reform. The State Board of Education is even considering a proposal to offer 3,000 publicly funded scholarships to help children attend private schools in the city. State Superintendent Cecil Pickard, once an opponent of school vouchers, recently explained his change of heart to the board: "Things have changed dramatically since Hurricane Katrina. So I think we need to start thinking out of the box."
Local leaders should be applauded for exploring innovative reforms rather than just rebuilding broken, troubled school systems. Across the nation, parent-centered education reforms like charter schools and vouchers have been found to lead to higher parental satisfaction and student achievement. If Louisiana's new steps toward school choice are successful, it could mark a brighter future for thousands of children.
Dan Lips is education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.