The Political Challenge of Reforming Government Schools

Transpartisan Note #100

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the New Orleans school system.

Education is among the most important, if not the most important issue, in every community. The greatest education challenge in most communities lies in reforming and sustaining government (that is public) schools. With few exceptions, government schools across the country and around the world face deep crisis.

On July 1, 2018, the state of Louisiana, which took over the New Orleans schools after Katrina, returned control of all New Orleans schools to the city. In a little over a decade, writes Progressive Pulitzer Prize New York Times journalist David Leonhardt on July 15, ”the academic progress has been remarkable.” In all major dimensions the New Orleans school rebuilding program scored impressively.

On July 15, researchers Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen reported increases in: New Orleans student achievement by 11–16 percentiles; high school graduation 3–9 percentage points; college entry 8–15 points; college persistence 4–7 points; graduation 3–5 points; college outcomes 10–67%. Outcomes for disadvantaged students and educational inequities for high school and college also improved.

The re-creation of New Orleans schools, say researchers Harris and Larsen, “… represent the first time in the last century that the traditional U.S. government-driven system of K-12 schooling has been completely replaced by a market-driven one.”

What lessons can be learned from New Orleans’ experience? What features have the limited political opposition which often destroys so many plans for school reform?

Both public government school and private charter schools face powerful political opposition dividing communities for and against each. New Orleans by-passed this common battle very simply: every school became a charter school. No need to fight. We believe that three features of the New Orleans reform are very important, and it happens that they imitate other reform experiences that we are aware of.

The three features are:

  • Everyone is included in the reform; everyone gets to participate. In current charter school advocacy, schools become charter schools for groups that organize charters. Everyone else is left behind ‘in the nightmare’.
  • Changes occur organically rather than mechanically. Principals and teachers are given authority and held to accountability. Most public policy reforms today are implemented mechanically on order from ‘central’.
  • Every community controls its school. Though legally part of the public system Charter schools here act independently. This essential principle empowers school communities with shared common ownership of schools.

There are many examples of individual schools operating on these principles in many places, both in the U.S. and globally. Educate Girls Globally, created by Lawry Chickering, has been working in two states of India for fifteen years in about 7,000 schools serving more than 500,000 children. It uses these principles and has not experienced significant opposition or conflict in a single school.

New Orleans’ school renaissance provides another way that city overcomes Katrina.

(Image of Bienville (Pk-8) – Housing Arthur Ashe Charter from | The Times-Picayune.)

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