Testing The Benefits, Burdens Of School Choice

The first of a two-part series

More In The Series

Many education reformers are looking to lessons from New Orleans, where the city's educational landscape has been transformed since Hurricane Katrina.

The city has evolved from an ineffective and corrupt centralized school district before the storm to a kind of educational shopping mall, where parents can choose from a variety of schools.

From her historic home on St. Charles Avenue, Leslie Jacobs has seen her share of New Orleans history. As the streetcar rumbles by, Jacobs recalls that before Hurricane Katrina, she served on the Orleans Parish School Board, a central school district that was known for low student performance and financial corruption. That school system, she says, was evenhanded: It was unfair to everyone.

"Equity never existed in New Orleans pre-Katrina," Jacobs says. "If there was equity, there was equity of no opportunity."

Before Hurricane Katrina, the state created the Recovery School District, which began taking over many low-performing schools in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana. Now, the RSD runs 33 schools in the city and oversees 26 charters. The Orleans Parish School Board lives on, but it runs only seven schools and oversees 12 charters. The high number of charters and the absence of any strong, central authority make the city unique in American education.

Today, like many education advocates here, Jacobs has moved into the role of reformer. She runs a nonprofit called Educate Now, and she is a booster for the education revolution here. Jacobs notes that today, parents can shop from among 80 schools with different approaches to teaching — and different success rates.

"There are more choices for parents today. There are better choices. You don't have to live in a certain neighborhood, have a certain grade point average or take a test to get into a good school," she says.

The Burden Of Choice

But choice doesn't count for much if parents can't navigate the smorgasbord of school offerings to find the right fit for their children. Angela Daliet, another city resident turned education reformer, says that the families of many New Orleans schoolchildren — most of whom are very poor — can be confused by the plethora of choices they face.

Daliet, a former investment adviser, has firsthand knowledge of how hard the system can be to navigate. Shortly after Katrina, she returned to her heavily flooded neighborhood to find that all the schools were closed. She asked someone with the school district how long she would have to wait for a local school to open. "And basically I was told that my kids' school wouldn't open until 2011 or so," she recalls.

Daliet refused to accept that, and she got approval within months to reopen her local school. Now, she runs an advocacy group called Save Our Schools NOLA, which assists New Orleans residents who don't have the means, or the savvy, to navigate the system the way she did.

"We get calls on a regular basis from parents and guardians looking to put their kids in school — a good school," Daliet says. "And those schools are not a choice for them. So I don't understand the word 'choice' there."

The best schools are often full, and just figuring out which schools are best requires a high level of sophistication. Daliet's group has started a Web site that helps families shop for schools.

Money Matters

Choice may also be more expensive. According to a report issued last year, New Orleans' current decentralized school system is spending more money than it can afford over the long term. The report, by the Cowan Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University, said that the system duplicates costs for transportation and maintenance.

But for education leaders who remember the old, corrupt school district, the thought of going back to a single school district brings back memories too awful to contemplate.

So where is New Orleans headed? Toward more change. Matt Candler, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that's helping with school reform, says if everyone can't get into a good school, the answer is to replace bad schools with good ones.

"Let's build quality, and find where it works and replace poor schools with high-quality ones," he says.

For New Orleans school officials, that search for quality has meant turning more traditional schools into charter schools.

This is the first of two reports. On Tuesday, Part 2 will examine New Orleans' experience with charter schools and the objections raised by traditional schools, which argue that charters skim off the best students.

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