Friday, January 26, 2007

NOLA Charters and Choice

Arguably the most significant challenge facing New Orleans is the task of rebuilding the city’s educational system, and some profound proposals for reform are being discussed. IAJE’s Jazz Education Journal assessed the situation in Antonio J. García’s “Jazz Education in New Orleans, Post-Katrina.” It was discussed in a post here, but some of numbers and implications of the piece begged further inquiry.

García wrote:

“Of the 57 schools slated to open in Louisiana’s State Recovery School District this fall, only five are traditional public schools overseen by an accountable and elected school board. The other 53 are charter schools, which receive both federal and state dollars but operate with more autonomy.” [Again, I assume that’s a typo in the math.]


“The Catholic [school] administrative system was better suited to meet the challenge of the displaced students, as the pre-Katrina needs of Baton Rouge and New Orleans had already resided under one roof. And the Catholic music programs had often been better funded than their secular counterparts.”

According to García and an Urban Institute policy paper he cites, forty percent of New Orleans student population attended Catholic parochial schools before Katrina. Of those students, 79% have returned to class in a Catholic school-if not New Orleans, then Baton Rouge or whatever city they found refuge in.

Most residents of New Orleans were far from affluent, so the fact that 40% of parents opted to send their children to Catholic school is highly telling. The Urban Institute paper, written by Paul Hill and Jane Hannaway, explains in large measure why they would make this choice:

“In the 2004-2005 school year, only 44 percent of fourth graders proved proficient in reading and only 26 percent in math. Eight graders performed even worse. Twenty-six percent were proficient in reading and 15 percent in math.”

For the coming school year, the overwhelming majority of operational schools in New Orleans will be charter schools (53 vs. 4). The state of Louisiana and the Urban Institute (hardly a right-wing hotbed) authors advocate expanding charters schools as a way of rebuilding the educational system in a way that serves students and maintains flexibility for an uncertain future. Hill and Hannaway go further including this potentially controversial proposal:

A Scholarship plan under which all New Orleans students, no matter where each went to school previously, can take a set amount of money to any local school. This amount (including funds for facilities rental) could come from a combination of state and federal aid. Far more than a voucher plan, the idea is to prompt the private sector to open more schools and thus promote school quality.”

It seems the only reason not to call this a voucher plan is the political baggage attached to the V-word, but the logic is inescapable. Clearly, the educational bureaucracy has proved itself incapable of dealing with the dire effects of Katrina, while Catholic and Charter schools have stepped up to the plate. The potential implications of what is brewing in New Orleans are enormous, but have gone largely unnoticed. We might well see in New Orleans a robust charter school environment and a viable voucher system that includes parochial schools, reforms taken not as a principled economic policy, but as a Hail Mary attempt to rescue the city’s schools and by extension, its future.