December 9, 2016; New Orleans Times-Picayune

New Orleans seems poised to become a poster child for those who advocate the transformation of America’s public education system to one based totally on free market principles.

As reported in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “Orleans Parish Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced…he had ‘received informal expressions of interest from current school and charter leaders to convert some or all of our remaining five network elementary and high schools to charter schools authorized by Orleans Parish School Board.’”

Moving all of NOLA’s children into privately operated but taxpayer-financed public schools would complete a process with roots in the muddy aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the city needed to restart public education.

New Orleans opened its first charter school in 1998. Six years after that came another. And after that, the deluge, literally. After Hurricane Katrina shut down the city, charter school advocates local and national saw their chance. The Louisiana Recovery School District seized most of the city’s public schools and gradually began assigning them to charter organizations.

Choice advocates believe that charter schools have resulted in a remarkable turnaround in New Orleans. The conversion of the remaining traditional public schools is seen as a way to bring this improved educational product to all of the city’s children. Superintendent Henderson told the School Board that he welcomed “the opportunity to empower our network school leaders and their school communities to determine the best path forward and access to the same financial resources and operational autonomy as other schools in our city enjoy. I have full confidence in the leadership of our schools to make informed, student-centered decisions.”

On the surface, the improvement since the waters receded from the city has been truly remarkable. As Washington Monthly put it:

In 2005 the city ranked sixty-seventh out of sixty-eight districts in Louisiana, itself a low performer compared to other states. Last year, New Orleans was forty-first out of sixty-nine school districts in Louisiana. Before Katrina, some 62 percent of students attended schools rated “failing” by the state. Though the standard for failure has been raised, only 7 percent of students attend “failing” schools today. Before Katrina, only 35 percent of students scored at grade level or above on state standardized tests. Last year 62 percent did.

Look a little deeper, though, as the New York Times did, and this glowing picture looks less promising.

The New Orleans miracle is not all it seems. Louisiana state standards are among the lowest in the nation. […] The average composite ACT score…was just 16.4 in 2014, well below the minimum score required for admission to a four-year public university in Louisiana. There is also growing evidence that the reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.

How will the marketplace sort out this discrepancy and make sure we’re moving in the right direction? In the traditional model of public education, it’s the responsibility of district school boards to glean clarity from any apparent confusion about how their community’s schools are doing. To the extent that charter schools have unique strengths in how they teach, the boards have the authority to move them into district-wide efforts. Lastly, they are responsible for making sure children do not get lost in the complexity of the marketplace. But in a system where all schools are privately run, where does this responsibility and power lie?

We might look to Detroit, another city that has seen most of its students enrolled in charters or using vouchers to attend private schools, for an answer. What we can learn is how risky it can be to rely on market forces to ensure educational effectiveness and equity. Detroit’s marketplace has not given students the level of educational improvement New Orleans claims. Depending on market forces to drive change has allowed schools to choose their own neighborhoods rather than be located where they are most needed; the result is what might be described as “school deserts,” which, as described by the N.Y. Times, harm children: “And, in a city of 140 square miles, the highest-performing schools usually remain out of reach to the poorest students, because most schools do not offer transportation, and the city bus service is unreliable.”

How can the marketplace solve these problems in a way that maintains public accountability?—Martin Levine