About a decade ago, Louisiana officials decided to take over all but a few of New Orleans public schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. From the start, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, was determined to turn the city into an all-choice school district. Blanco wanted open enrollment across the system, without neighborhood zones, and for government funding to follow students to their school of choice.
From an academic standpoint, the takeover was clearly justified. Two out of every three students attended a failing school. Students struggled to meet college readiness benchmarks on the ACT.
Today, every family has a say in where their child goes to school. Nine out of 10 public school students have chosen a charter school. Students are noticeably outperforming the pre-hurricane results. Only 7 percent of students attend a failing school. Three out of four students graduate, which is right in line with Louisiana's statewide rate. ACT results are much closer to the state average.
All of that progress is thanks to school choice, says Center for Education Reform President Kara Kerwin. "Without that environment, without a real change in the governance structure which allowed really great people to come in and think about schools differently, without giving parents the ability to make choices, you wouldn't see those results," Kerwin told the Washington Examiner. "It would have gone back to the very same thing."
School choice works so well because it gets parents even more involved in their child's education. "When you're actually empowered to make a decision about what's right or wrong for your kid, you feel empowered and you feel invested in the school that is serving them," Kerwin said. "When you have no choice in the matter you just kind of go through the motions."
It's clear that New Orleans education system is better off today, but what if Hurricane Katrina had never hit? Would New Orleans' kids still be stuck in failing schools? Would parents have as much freedom to choose their child's school?
Across the country, there are cities with failing education systems that suffer from the same problems that New Orleans did. Will the necessary reforms have to wait until a natural disaster intervenes? Failing school systems, especially in urban areas, need to make expanded school choice a priority.
There are a number of ways urban areas can expand school choice. Open enrollment laws would let students attend schools outside their designated zones, or even outside their school districts. Parent trigger laws would empower parents to organize and petition to have their school taken over by a charter operator. State governments could take over failing schools the way Louisiana did.
School district support for school choice is important, too. "What is really interesting about New Orleans is that you had a number of groups, and they were encouraged, and there were programs put in place...that encouraged people to take a chance and open schools," Kerwin said.
Even with all the success it has had, the New Orleans model isn't perfect. Too few institutions have the power to authorize new charter schools. The state's voucher program has regulations that excessively burden the private schools that choose to participate.
But the progress made in all-choice school districts like the one in New Orleans should be celebrated, and the lessons should be learned across the nation. It shouldn't take bad academics or natural disasters to get cities to empower families to choose their children's school.