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Unraveling New Orleans’s education reform a lesson for Louisiana

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by Jeanne Allen
The Advocate
July 18, 2016

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to remind us what’s important — and what not to take for granted. Nowhere is this more obvious for the education reform movement than in New Orleans.

Before Hurricane Katrina, 62 percent of students in New Orleans were enrolled in failing schools. Half didn’t graduate from high school. Today, three quarters of kids are graduating on time, and the percentage of students testing at grade level has skyrocketed by 77 percent. The difference? More than 90 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools, many of which were created by the state of Louisiana and education reformers to help fill the void left in the wake of Katrina.

For education reformers — the people who dreamed not only of remaking schools, but also reimagining school districts and entire education systems — New Orleans reminds us of what’s possible. Parents, regardless of their means and their ZIP code, finally got to choose what worked best for their children. The fact that schools had autonomy and parents had choices helped make the entire city a hotbed of innovation — from training to technology to curricula.

But now, 20 years after Louisiana’s first charter school opened and nearly 11 years after Katrina, charter schools have shifted into a defensive posture. During his campaign for governor last year, John Bel Edwards promised not to meddle with the Big Easy’s innovators. Now, he works with teachers unions and legislators to limit the very independence and innovation that school choice programs represent. Indeed, in the name of “local control,” the fate of the charter sector was thrown to an institution — the Orleans Parish School Board — which has historically opposed giving any power to schools or autonomy to individuals. This is the same structure, by the way, which doomed New Orleans students to violent and chronically failing schools before Katrina.

This sudden unraveling of the New Orleans revolution signifies one of the most troubling signs of education reform, and its implications go beyond the Big Easy. Louisiana saw a slew of legislation this year aimed at restraining and limiting parent power. Gains achieved in states, cities and towns nationwide are under constant threat from local school boards and politicians. Across the country, attempts to limit law, policy and practice continue to stifle opportunity and the groundbreaking approaches to learning that once were on an exponential growth curve.

It is tempting to attribute this troubling trend line to a natural reaction to education reform’s successes — a sign of growing pains. The enemies of change — most invested in the status quo — are clearly threatened, and they are fighting back with everything they have. Inertia, ignorance about outcomes, and a powerful teachers union are all part of the story not just in Louisiana, but in America.

Unfortunately, reformers have turned a blind eye to innovations and customized solutions. Instead, we’re focused on creating more uniform schools that ensure more predictable outcomes. To minimize alleged risk, we’re now driven to embrace only those new institutions that are created and managed by familiar, “proven” entities. What started out as an agenda that was bold and all-encompassing has morphed into something that too often comes across as narrow, hollow and hostile to the idea and ideals of public education.

Such an approach not only threatens the education reform movement’s very existence, but also ignores the changing character of rank-and-file teachers. A growing number of educators are younger and embrace the fundamentals of reform — flexibility, diversity and innovation.

Parents everywhere want choices. Students need — and deserve — diverse learning approaches. A new generation of educators is restless. Teachers in every kind of school want autonomy.

We need a new way forward — not another round of stubborn retrenchment, but a fresh vision that will make good on our movement’s original promise of turning around America’s failing schools. In an election year that promises to challenge and upset even our best success, we must succeed by having every education policy effort going forward focused on creating the opportunity for innovation.

Jeanne Allen is the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform and author of The New Opportunity Agenda.