Meanwhile, down in Louisiana, real education reform continues apace . . .
Jindal wants to create America’s largest school voucher program, broadest parental choice system, and toughest teacher accountability regime—all in one legislative session. Any one of those would be a big win, but all three could make the state the first to effectively dismantle a public education monopoly.
Louisiana is already one of 12 states (including Washington, D.C.) that offer school vouchers, but its program benefits fewer than 2,000 students in New Orleans. Governor Jindal would extend eligibility to any low-income student whose school gets a C, D or F grade from state administrators. That’s almost 400,000 students—a bit more than half the statewide population—who could escape failing schools for private or virtual schools, career-based programs or institutions of higher education.
Funding for these vouchers (“scholarships” is the poll-tested term) would come not from a new fund, as in New Orleans, but from what the state already spends on public education per capita. So every student leaving a failing school would take about $8,500 (on average) with him, hitting the bureaucracy where it hurts. This is called competition, that crucial quality missing where monopolies reign.
I had talked with Jindal about his already-significant reforms last fall:
“The reality is, the New Orleans public-school system was horrific before the storm — even the AP commented that it was one of the worst of the worst of all the public-school systems in the country,” he says. “Over half were academically unacceptable. You couldn’t get basic supplies, like toilet paper. The schools weren’t safe. The U.S. Attorney’s office had 20 different indictments related to the public-school system. In some schools it felt like the kids were coming out knowing less than when they started.”
The state made a couple of key decisions after Katrina. The first was to put most of the New Orleans schools, all but its best, into a “recovery school district” managed by the state and not the city’s school board. The existing collective-bargaining agreement for teachers and other school employees was nullified, ending the practice of firing based on seniority (last in, first out). The state also set out to maximize the use of charter schools. After Katrina, more than 70 percent of the students in New Orleans were in charter schools. That number has fallen, but a majority of students are still in charter schools, the largest percentage of any large urban school system.
The results at one of the charter schools, New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy, are a stunning rebuke to those who think that insufficient spending is what holds back students. The school, located in East New Orleans and just north of the Katrina-devastated Ninth Ward, is essentially a series of pre-constructed pods connected by wooden decks — not quite trailers, but only a step above. While the facilities are spotless and completely functional, they clearly are minimal-cost compared with those of most other schools.
Inside, the walls are covered with posters and slogans emphasizing that every student should achieve excellence and demonstrate discipline and drive at all times. Teachers are expected to be available by phone to their students until 9:30 in the evening. When Jindal and his small entourage enter a classroom, a teacher gently admonishes his students, who are buzzing about the newcomers: “Ladies and gentlemen, we often have visitors to this classroom. They are here to see your excellence — what you show me every day. When they come in, they see how hard you’re working. They don’t want to hear your voices. You are not distracted.” The students’ heads return to the worksheets before them.
“At this school, 85 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced[-cost] lunch, 97 percent are minority, 15 percent are special-ed,” Jindal says. “And 80 percent pass the English graduate-exit exam, and 90 percent of their kids in math. To give you a sense of where they’re starting from, among this year’s freshmen, a majority were reading at the fourth-grade level or below.” In September, Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network awarded Sci Academy $1 million as one of six schools nationwide that are doing well despite the odds.
John C. White, former deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, is now the superintendent of the recovery school district. “There are other places that realize this is what’s working, and are now saying, we’re going to emulate that,” White says, walking through Sci Academy. “Tennessee now has created a set of reforms entirely modeled on Louisiana. Detroit now wants to enact reforms modeled on Louisiana. We’re struggling in our business for what works. It’s going to take enormous political courage to create something like that.”
“For too many years,” says Jindal, “we measured educational success by how many dollars we were spending. The reality is, if you’re not measuring effectiveness, you have no idea if you’re spending it well.” This fall, parents will receive report cards on which every school gets a letter grade of A through F. Jindal explains: “The teachers’ unions went to the [board of elementary and secondary education] and they said, ‘We think you should give letter grades based on if a school is trying to improve.’ Let’s say one of the worst schools in the state gets a little better, they should get an A grade. I said, ‘Where in life does that ever happen? My kids play competitive sports. I’ve never seen the score based upon whether they tried harder than last week.’ There are going to be a lot of surprised parents. Though things have gotten better, there will be more low grades than people are expecting. This will empower parents. They need to have choice, information, and an easy way to evaluate ‘How is my child’s school doing?’”