Ten years ago, a devastating hurricane destroyed the city of New Orleans. Katrina ripped through schools and homes, displaced thousands of families, and annihilated an education system in crisis. As the city put itself back together, it has become a model for school choice — the idea that parents can choose their children’s schools — and education there is better than ever.
The results are in — 73 percent of students graduate today, while only 54 percent did so before the 2005 storm. In 2012, the share of New Orleans students proficient in math, reading, science, and social studies hit 58 percent, up from 35 percent before the storm, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
92 percent of students now attend charter schools — institutions run independently of local government but still financed through tax dollars. Rather than automatically pairing the student with the closest school, the system allows parents to choose which school to apply to, and uses a lottery system to see if they get their pick. This allows parents more say in which schools their children attend, and helps push up standards and local involvement.
The Corruption Before the Storm
Before Katrina, two thirds of New Orleans students attended a failing public school (today that number is down to 7 percent). Congressman Steve Scalise (a state Representative in 2005) called the system “one of the worst-run public school systems in the country.”
“Before Katrina, New Orleans had what many people would argue was the most-challenged school system in America,” Kenneth Campbell, Louisiana Department of Education director of charter schools from 2007-2010, told the Washington Examiner. The city’s average ACT score lagged behind other Louisiana school districts by 2.8 points (today it is only 0.8 points lower).
In addition to low education quality, the school district struggled with rampant corruption. Bribery, extortion, bank larceny, and other misuses of official power led the FBI to open its own desk within the school board office itself.
In one instance, two middle school teachers faced charges for altering payroll records to get extra cash. Two other workers were convicted in the same conspiracy.
Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s superintendent of education from 2007-2011, called the New Orleans school system “academically bankrupt, financially bankrupt, and facilities-wise bankrupt” before Katrina.
After Katrina — a Model for School Choice
It is impossible to deny the destructive nature of Hurricane Katrina, the most expensive natural disaster in American history. However, the storm enabled a unique opportunity for reform in education — which has produced tremendous results.
After the storm, the Recovery School District took over 114 of the 131 schools previously run by the school board. This new district turned schools over to charter groups and opened a lottery system to allow parents to send their kids to whichever school they prefer.
Giving parents this choice of schools fosters competition, driving schools to outperform others. As parents choose better schools, the worse ones are allowed to fail. During the 2013-2014 academic year, 10 of 80 charter schools received an “F” grade. While not every parent chooses their kid’s school based on academics, three of those schools have shut down, and at least one will be reopened under new management.
Due, at least in part, to this system, New Orleans is improving faster than any other school district in Louisiana.
The Value of Parental Involvement
Parental control may be the most important factor in the New Orleans turnaround — but not for the reasons many Americans might suspect.
Contrary to popular belief, evidence shows that some kinds of parental involvement in children’s education have little impact, and may end up holding kids back. Kids whose parents help out with homework, for instance, actually tend to succeed less, on average. Different kinds of involvement work best for different communities, depending on race, studies found. It stands to reason that religion and culture may also affect these differences.
Nevertheless, even social science supports the idea that the more parents value their children’s education, the more their children will succeed. “The list of what generally works is short: expecting your child to go to college, discussing activities children engage in at school, and requesting a particular teacher for your child.”
If requesting a particular teacher for your child makes a big difference, how much more would requesting a particular school?
In 2013, a Wall Street Journal reporter spoke with New Orleans resident Jennifer Nin. Her 8-year-old son had already attended three schools, seeking the best educational fit. After two years struggling at school, her son found Akili Academy, and was “thriving and loving it.”
“I like knowing that I have the freedom to decide where my son goes to school,” Ms. Nin told the Wall Street Journal. “It gives me the power to pick something better for him.”
The most important thing parents can do for their kids’ education is to emphasize the value of learning. But second to that, parents having a say in where and how they learn generally helps everyone involved — except the schools which are failing to help their students grow.
New Orleans offers a model for educational improvement involving the school choice paradigm. Giving parents a greater influence in selecting which school works best for their child boosts educational achievement, and it likely has a positive impact on learning, happiness, and peace at home.
Parents know the needs of their children best, and we should act to empower them. The more choice a parent has in choosing where their kids go to school, the better the system works. Parents should actively seek out different options, promote school choice in their area, and find the best fit for their kids – the future depends on it.
Image via AP Images