No city has embraced the school choice movement more than New Orleans. Yet over the past few weeks, the Wall Street Journal has been taking a close look at how the idea is working out, and the results have been decidedly mixed.The biggest problem is that there simply aren’t enough high-quality schools to go around. The city grades each public or charter school on an A–F scale, and only 14 percent of seats were in schools with a B or higher. Given the the dearth of high-performers and the limited number of seats at these schools, parents are often left to choose among a number of bad options.Perhaps more troubling, however, is that some parents may not be interested in the better schools:
Complicating results in the education marketplace, some families haven’t used their choices as expected: Nearly 35% of the approximately 6,700 students applying to transfer or enroll at a public school for the fall semester selected either D- or F-graded schools as their first pick, the Journal found….Nika Burns this spring decided to keep her two sons at a school that carried an F grade last school year, even though there were higher-rated schools closer to home. Her children objected to a move, she said, because “they feel loved and nurtured and cared for” at William J. Fischer Accelerated Academy. She also worried about the boys keeping up academically at another campus.
None of this is particularly great news for the voucher system. School choice works best when there are enough good schools available to put pressure on the low-performers to step up their game. When nearly all schools are below-average and parents are content to send their kids to the worst ones, there’s little motivation to tackle reforms.Still, there are a few signs that the Crescent City may be on the right track. Most notably, students have performed better academically since reforms were implemented—much better:
Graduation rates went to 78% last year from 52% before Katrina—surpassing Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif., cities also struggling to boost achievement among lower-income students. The share of New Orleans students proficient in math, reading, science and social studies increased to 58% in 2012 from 35% before the 2005 storm, state data shows.
Many of the city’s schools are still far behind where the city wants them to be but the trend is unmistakably headed in the right direction. And it’s important to remember that reforming an entire school system takes time. Even in New Orleans, where leaders have been enthusiastic about vouchers and school choice, the movement is still relatively young. The city is still working to iron out the kinks in the school selection process.Most significantly, the city has been proactive about closing failing schools and changing their management in an attempt to increase the number of high-performers. The improvements the city has already made suggest that this approach can work. Over time, this should lead to better options for parents. If the city has enough schools of A and B caliber to give parents a realistic shot of getting their kids enrolled, the continued offenders may start feeling some pressure.[New Orleans photo courtesy of Shutterstock]