Taking advantage of disarray and inertia by local officials, and the willingness of the federal government to heavily bankroll its alternative vision, powerful interests in education reform took the reins in New Orleans to recreate "public" education under a market model.
As the new school year gets underway, little relating to the K-12 educational process in New Orleans is clear, or easy. Students are still looking for places to hang their backpacks; parents are still crisscrossing the city trying to navigate a system that barely qualifies as "public," but for the millions of public dollars that have funded its creation.
Time will tell whether this experiment — with some of the neediest students in the nation — will work from an academic standpoint. The most recent studies of charter school performance around the country suggest that it may not. On Aug. 22, the U.S. Department of Education released a new report showing that traditional public schools significantly outperform independent charter schools.
All of the schools in New Orleans must release data on whom they are educating, what they are teaching, the qualifications of their teachers, and the academic achievement of their students. But the process for ensuring basic accountability is as decentralized as the "system" itself. It will be months, or even longer, before a true picture develops of how students are faring in the New Orleans schools and whether this new paradigm is indeed serving the needs of all the city's children.
So we wait. But no additional time is needed to assert that the dismantling of the New Orleans public schools has destroyed a slice of common ground that has been recognized for generations. That is, a system of public schools that promises to bind us together as a nation — even as we fight to make them better. Troubled as the New Orleans Public School system was before Katrina, what has taken its place promises only to further segregate the city's students — by race, by class, by disability, by talents and interests and gifts. No doubt some of these new independent schools will thrive and will build a base of public support and long waiting lists. Others will fail, either because of mismanagement or poor academic results, and cast their students out yet again to find somewhere else to learn. And almost assuredly, those children left behind, by virtue of their still condemned houses, their under-resourced parents, or their individual needs, will continue to suffer because the market requires some to succeed and others to fail. The real vision — the real new paradigm — must be the old one: that a system of public schools, supported and embraced by the public, is the best way to provide all our young people with a quality education, at the same time that we build quality citizens and a common bond that transcends race and class and serves to unite a nation. Market-based schools will never do that.