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The power of the New Orleans school reform

Posted by Jim Stergios  April 14, 2012 11:45 AM

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For all the talk about a big national education agenda, the fact is that little implementation of the national standards is actually going on. Lots of talk, lots of money being spent, but business as usual on the federal front.

In a number of states, and without any connection to the federal ed department’s lumbering efforts, there’s been a tsunami of school choice programs. Times-Picayune reports that

The Louisiana House of Representatives has given final approval to the central pieces of Gov. Bobby Jindal's sweeping agenda to restructure primary and secondary education in Louisiana.

With the 60-43 vote for House Bill 974 and a subsequent 60-42 vote for House Bill 976, Louisiana will, among other details, curtail teacher tenure protection; tie instructors' compensation and superintendents' job security to student performance; shift hiring and firing power from school boards to superintendents; create new paths to open independent public charter schools; and establish a statewide program that uses the public-school financing formula to pay private-school tuition for certain low-income students.

The push for school choice has largely been the work of Republican governors and Governor Bobby Jindal is certainly one of the leading Republican governors. Whether Mitch Daniels, Jindal or others, school choice is a way to show that they can politically move difficult reforms ahead and demonstrate to peers that they are real leaders.
But that’s true of any politician with ambitions. The larger shift that has come is with Democrats – and it is deep. As Greg Forster, a Senior Fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, noted recently,

[T]he research we’ve done on school choice over the past 15 years was a big part of the shift toward choice on the left over the past five years.

In Louisiana, much of the debate shifted because of the ability to turn around the New Orleans schools through school choice programs, public charter schools and expanded access to private schools. As a New York Times editorial noted in October,

Before Hurricane Katrina, more than 60 percent of children in New Orleans attended a failing school. Now, only about 18 percent do.

Five years ago, less than a quarter of the children in a special district set up by the state to manage the lowest performing schools scored at or above the “basic” level on state tests. Now, nearly half do.

New Orleans’ reform was composed of two major components – charters and choice, and a focus on changing the teacher corps profoundly. Proponents have used the strong success in New Orleans to argue that the

school voucher bill is about “choice” offered to parents to secure a better education for their children who are currently enrolled in schools rated C, D or F in the state accountability program. Students in D or F schools are to be given priority if not enough spaces are available at private and parochial schools.

It is interesting to see the shift in school choice opponents' arguments. Proponents posited that their statutory changes would “make 380,000 students eligible for vouchers” over the long haul. Opponents based much of their case on the lack of immediate benefits for all, noting that the current supply of private schools could not handle that level of participation. Only roughly one percent of the 380,000 number could be served--and that wasn't fair, was one of the key arguments of opponents.

So, they were in essence arguing that choice was okay but needed to be broader. That is truly a sea change. In addition, the ability of the New Orleans Recovery District to create new schools rapidly, to build a new supply of schools, muted even those arguments of opponents.

At best, opponents could argue for a limited approach, focused only on students in schools that were graded D or F by the state accountability system.

Provisions of the Massachusetts' Constitution differ significantly from those in Louisiana's. Our provisions explicitly prohibit the use of public funds for private educational purposes; Louisiana's require that public funds go to public schools but does not explicitly prohibit the use of public funds for private schools.

* * *

Other new laws in Louisiana strengthen the process for setting up charter schools, including standards for open meetings and public records laws. They strengthen the state board of education’s oversight of charter schools so that the board can

rescind a charter or agreement between a local charter authorizer and a chartering group if the chartering group has been found to have a repeating pattern of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment of students.

As noted, one of the three major laws also revises state tenure laws, making it tougher for teachers to earn tenure and easier to dismiss those who flunk evaluations. Again, going back to the New Orleans' model, it requires that new teachers must be rated “highly effective” at least five times in a six-year period, that certified teachers could lose certification after a single bad evaluation and could be fired if they receive two consecutive ineffective ratings. To keep principals and superintendents from unfair evaluations, it guarantees teachers a review by an independent panel if their principals flunk them, notwithstanding a highly effective rating on the student performance section of their evaluation.

Here is Gov. Jindal testifying on the bill:

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The question for Massachusetts is why can’t we apply the same reform to Lawrence? Its performance is every bit as bad as was New Orleans before the natural disaster that hit the city. Do we have to wait for an act of god before we act?

Consider the current effort to right the ship of the district schools in Lawrence. This is not the first time. In the late 1990s, we tried a state receivership in the late 1990s that led to the appointment of Wilfred Laboy, a superintendent that failed spectacularly in the district’s efforts to improve student achievement and stanch the flow of dropouts. Jeffrey Riley, just appointed by the state, is no Wilfred Laboy. And the Department is looking to break an egg or two, but not the number of eggs needed to serve omelets to enough kids. Even on the off-off-off chance that some of the reforms will gain steam and provide very modest improvements, is that what we are after?

Lawrence has very good charter schools and could line up more charter operators very quickly. It also has the advantage of an existing network of high-quality parochial schools that could play a key role in changing the prospects of kids -- not after the successful execution of a five- or ten-year improvement plan but rather immediately.

Do we really have to wait for an act of god before we act?

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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