John White is Louisiana state superintendent of education.
In September, a congressional conference committee will take up the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) amid a political climate far more divided than in 2001, when Congress last reauthorized the legislation as the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
For all of its weaknesses, NCLB drew on the civil rights traditions of liberals and the free-market instincts of conservatives, holding the education establishment accountable for focusing on historically disenfranchised students and providing American families unprecedented public school choice. In seeking compromise among the more divided conservatives and liberals of today, Congress might look to the education renaissance in post-Katrina New Orleans for evidence that progress in American schools relies on a bipartisan approach to education policy.
It was systems such as the Orleans Parish School Board that prompted Congress to pass No Child Left Behind . Before the 2005 hurricane, high school graduation rates hovered at 54 percent. Only 37 percent of seniors enrolled in a university or community college. Barely more than a third of students could read and do math at even a basic level.
Floods wrought by Katrina and failed levees created an unprecedented circumstance. With no students enrolled, the already bankrupt Orleans Parish fired its teachers wholesale. Families dispersed. Buildings flooded.
States have often reacted to calamity in local school systems by sending state bureaucrats to manage local school board offices. It has never worked.
Rather than forcing state management of Orleans Parish, state and local leaders in New Orleans set struggling schools free of the school board through a Recovery School District (RSD) in which schools could improve out from under the thumbs of politics and bureaucracy.
The RSD and philanthropists solicited top educators — most residing in New Orleans before the storm — to start charter schools governed by nonprofit boards, empowered to budget and hire as the principal sees fit, and held to rigid performance goals through state contracts. Over time, the RSD located charter schools in all of its facilities.
The Recovery School District then established a process whereby parents could apply to nearly any school in the city for admission, no matter where they live. Seventy-five percent of participating parents receive one of their top three choices each year.
This school choice program for parents, budgeting and hiring autonomy for principals, and stringent accountability for charter school boards has worked. Though more students than ever before in New Orleans take the ACT test, the city’s average score has increased nearly two full points since 2005 and now tops the national average for African American students. The city’s high school graduation rate has increased from 54 percent to 73 percent, beating the national average for African American males. The rate of seniors going to college has increased from 37 percent to 59 percent.
Authors of a recently released peer-reviewed study of New Orleans test scores were emphatic. “We are not aware,” they wrote, “of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short period of time.”
There are many reasons for these initial successes, and much more remains to be done. But in a nation whose schools are often entangled in a complicated web of federal, state and local politics, one thing in particular stands out in New Orleans schools: Decisions on behalf of children are made by the people who are closest to them. Parents choose the school, and educators run the school.
The result is a uniquely responsive school system, one that regularly and quickly creates solutions to the daily challenges of poverty and disability. New Orleans educators are civil rights warriors and social entrepreneurs.
This didn’t happen only because New Orleans has employed a market-type system of school choice, as conservatives may advocate. It didn’t happen because New Orleans protects the civil rights of its children through annual testing and accountability, as liberals may insist. It happened because New Orleans has blended the best of the liberal civil rights tradition and the conservative entrepreneurship tradition to yield schools that are uncommonly focused and unendingly creative.
As with the changes in the New Orleans education landscape, the federal education law exists to protect children whom the system has tended not to protect. Congress has a chance this fall to streamline regulation, sustain the nation’s commitment to accountability and empower parents to direct their children’s education. Whatever one thinks of the federal role in education, a reauthorized ESEA could improve thousands of schools and millions of young lives.
The resurgent Crescent City and its brilliant children remind us that this will best be done from both sides of the aisle.