The Power of Choice
Newsweek ran a good article on “New Orleans’ Charter-School Revolution” yesterday, and it shows the possibilities of a very open charter school system:
In most public school systems in America, students attend the school for which their neighborhood is zoned. But in the five years since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has created a school system unlike any other in the country. “We used Katrina as an opportunity to build—not rebuild, but build—a new school system,” says Paul Vallas, the outgoing superintendent of the Recovery School District, which, authorized by the state to turn around failing schools, took over most of New Orleans’s schools after the storm. Last year more than 60 percent of the city’s students attended charter schools; this year nine additional schools switched to a charter model, so that number will be higher. Vallas calls this new paradigm an “overwhelmingly publicly funded, predominantly privately run school system.”
In 2005 Orleans Parish was the second-worst-performing school district in the state, and in some schools 30 percent of seniors dropped out over the course of the year. In 2003 one high-school valedictorian failed the math portion of the state exit exam five times and could not graduate. Things were different at the charters: at New Orleans Charter Middle School, which in 1998 became the city’s first charter school, parents would put their head in their hands and cry if their child’s name didn’t come up in the admissions lottery.
In New Orleans today, students and educators have unprecedented leeway to mold educational experiences. Students can apply to and, if accepted, choose to attend any of the […] 46 charter schools or 23 “traditional” schools. The vast majority of schools have open-enrollment policies that allow any student to attend, regardless of past academic success. (Schools with more applicants than spots hold lotteries.) The prevalence of charters means that in most of the city’s schools, educators can choose how their schools are run. Even in traditional schools, principals have unusual autonomy over the hiring—and firing—of teachers, since the city’s teachers’ union lost its collective-bargaining rights.
So far, the experiment appears to be working. Before Katrina, two thirds of students were attending schools deemed failing by state standards, notes Leslie Jacobs, a New Orleans education-reform advocate; in the 2010–11 academic year, she says, it will be less than one third. “The fact that we haven’t gotten everything right yet shouldn’t take away from the fact that we’re getting a whole lot more right,” she says. New Orleans schools are still performing below the state average on achievement tests, but according to Jacobs’s analysis of state data, the gap between New Orleans and the rest of the state has basically been cut in half.
Obviously, that’s far from perfect, but it’s more improvement than the city saw under the old regime. I also think that the teacher union’s loss of collective bargaining rights is a big reason that charters schools have the chance to succeed in New Orleans. Public school teacher unions typically act as a special interest groups hell-bent on stopping any kind of competition to the public school model, so they lobby for laws restricting options like vouchers, education tax credits, and charter schools. Missouri, for instance, has fairly strict rules on charters requiring them to have an academic sponsor and restricting their operations to the cities of Saint Louis and Kansas City.
Still, students in Missouri’s charter schools can be expected to outperform their public school counterparts over time, according to a study by Standford University’s Center for Research on Education, which my colleague Josh Smith blogged about last year. If Missouri offered an even more welcoming environment to charter schools — by, say, letting them operate anywhere in the state — we might be able to come closer to matching the impressive gains of the New Orleans’ schools. At the very least, the research shows that charter schools can replicate the academic accomplishments of public schools at a much lower cost, which is still a net benefit over the status quo.
Again, the evidence shows that schools are like most other institutions in that they perform best when their stakeholders have alternatives and choose which establishment to patronize.