I have my own opinions, but I’m curious to hear what others think first.
The results are encouraging. Five years ago, 23% of children scored at or above “basic” on state tests; now 48% do. Before Katrina, 62% attended failing schools; less than a fifth do today. The gap between city kids and the rest of the state is narrowing.
But New Orleans schools still have a ways to go. A state report this week based on scores, graduation rates and attendance records said the majority of the city’s schools merited a D grade or worse.
Enter Mr. White, a sort of reform superintendent 2.0., to try to take New Orleans to the next level. Predecessors Paul Vallas and Paul Pastorek shook up the schools, in the way the charismatic Michelle Rhee did in Washington, D.C. Mr. White spent five years working for another trailblazer, Joel Klein in New York. As deputy superintendent, Mr. White weeded out bad schools and nurtured the charter school zone in Harlem. His task here is to hold and build on the gains so far.
For generations, money was thrown at urban school systems; regulations were strengthened; school boards were empowered. Unions won tenure and other great benefits for their teachers. All of these efforts came from the top down. None improved outcomes for minority students. “We have tended as a country to solve problems like this more through generating energy by way of our entrepreneurs,” says Mr. White. “The approach [in New Orleans] is just government facilitating an entrepreneurial solution to this inequity.”
“In terms of just ‘we take every single kid and educate them in a way that is reasonably rigorous and addresses both career needs and college prep needs,’ they are the hallmark school right now,” says Mr. White. “I wouldn’t say they are, by [Ms. Laurie’s] admission, anywhere close to where they need to be and want to be.” The state report card gave Walker a C+. John Mac failed.
Older black educators like Ms. Laurie started New Orleans down the reform path after Katrina, says Ms. Jacobs: “They were the ones who did the turnarounds, not the young punks.” As word spread, young college graduates and outside charter groups flooded the zone. New Orleans has one of the country’s largest TFA contingents.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, in a lawsuit against the Recovery District, alleges that special-needs kids are systematically excluded and badly served by charters. Independent schools blanche at the high cost and can’t draw on help from a central school system. Mr. White says the district is in talks with the Center, and defends the charters, which he adds have found “innovative” solutions for special-needs students. Walker, for example, specializes in kids with verbal problems. In an all-charter system, no students will be excluded. And before Katrina, 11% of special-needs students tested at grade level, 36% do now.
“Recovery” was always supposed to be temporary. At some point, direct oversight over schools will return to local, probably elected, authorities.
Charismatic leadership broke taboos and brought a sense of urgency. Mr. White is trying something else—to help an open system of independent public schools mature and outlive him in the Big Easy.