NEW ORLEANS — Betsy DeVos, the Michigan philanthropist Donald Trump has selected for secretary of education, talks about unleashing a “revolution” in K-12 public education. If she wins the job, DeVos gets control of the $20 billion Trump has promised to spend on education reform, so it’s worth thinking about what that revolution might look like. Imagine an American city where parents have a choice of where to send their children to school, rather than being stuck with whatever’s in the neighborhood. Imagine the rapid spread of independent charter schools, run privately and competing for students from all across town. Imagine the state pays for low-income families to send their children to private schools, many of them operated by the local Catholic archdiocese. Imagine, in other words, New Orleans.
These ideas—choice, charter schools, vouchers—have all gained a foothold to one degree or another in struggling urban districts across the country, including in DeVos’ own home turf of Detroit, where more than half of public school students now attend charter schools. But nowhere has the revolution achieved the kind of complete victory it has in the Crescent City in the years since Hurricane Katrina. The neighborhood attendance zones that define school options for families around the country have been abolished here. Soon, New Orleans may become the only big city in the country without a single traditional public school run by a central office; nearly all have been turned into charter schools—there are now more than 80 in all—and the five remaining holdouts may be converted in the next few months. A few thousand families take advantage of the state’s voucher program, enrolling in local Catholic schools. And overall, test scores here have improved markedly.
But if the idea is to blow up traditional school systems around the country this way, there may be as much cautionary tale in New Orleans as success story. Just because one charter school system works, doesn’t mean every charter school system works. Through more than a decade of policy changes and course corrections, New Orleans has discovered a lot of the ways that a system based on giving parents choice can go wrong. The solution, it has discovered, is not simply to retreat and allow market forces a free hand in delivering education. In contrast to some other states with big charter sectors—notably Michigan, where DeVos just helped kill a proposed state law that would have made it easier to close failing charter schools—Louisiana has been relatively aggressive in shaping the available options, repeatedly closing charters that underperform.
If there is a Betsy DeVos of New Orleans, it is Leslie Jacobs, a former insurance executive and school board member who has been one of the most tenacious advocates for the city’s charters. She described the city’s school system to me recently this way: In the ideological struggle over choice and charter schools “we’re actually in the middle. Yeah, there are charters and there’s autonomy, but charters don’t get to pick their own enrollment and you’re going to be held to a very high standards. There’s nowhere else in the country that has this.”
That’s not to say the charter movement here hasn’t been controversial. It probably couldn’t have happened but for the decision to fire every employee of the local school system after Hurricane Katrina, a move that has embittered many of the city’s veteran educators toward everything that’s followed. Even now, teachers in New Orleans charter schools tend to be younger and more often white than they used to be. But most careful attempts to measure academic performance suggest that charter schools in New Orleans have improved results.
The percentage of students in the 3rd though 8th grades passing state exams has gone from about 33 percent the year before the storm to about 61 percent last year. The average ACT score has climbed about a point and a half, despite the fact that all students are now required to take the exam, a shift that might have otherwise depressed results. Efforts to control for potential factors aside from the charters themselves have tended to confirm that the schools are making an impact. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Reforms, which measures progress by matching students with those from comparable public schools, has found repeatedly that students in New Orleans charters are learning substantially more than they otherwise would have. Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans found the same in a study released last year.
“In both reading and math there is a substantial advantage to enrolling in New Orleans charter schools compared to what those same students would have learned had they gone to traditional public schools,” said Macke Ramond, director of CREDO at Stanford.
At the same time, it took more than a decade to achieve these results. And New Orleans has also witnessed some of the perils of a decentralized system, in which schools are competing with one another for students and the tax dollars that come with them. The state took over most city schools right after the storm in 2005. The governor and the state Legislature decided that the local school board wasn’t up to the task of rebuilding, given a history of corruption scandals, turnover in the superintendent’s office and rock-bottom test scores. The shift to charters came gradually. For a while, the state’s Recovery School District—eerily, it was given that name before Katrina and referred only to academic “recovery”—ran a set of traditional schools alongside a growing charter sector. Test scores started improving almost immediately, with the charters leading the way.
And almost immediately there were questions about why. For some reason, the percentage of students designated as having “special needs” remained persistently lower in the charter schools. The Southern Poverty Law Center accused some of the schools of shunning or kicking out the hardest to serve students and filed a lawsuit against the district, which eventually resulted in a consent decree requiring stepped-up oversight. The extent to which this practice actually went on or had an impact on test scores is still a matter of debate. But there were certainly some bad actors. In a separate study, Tulane’s Research Alliance interviewed principals anonymously on enrollment practices, and the results in some cases were almost comical. A few principals seemed flatly unaware of the law, which says that charters must take anyone who lives in the city. One principal said she regularly interviewed family members of prospective students to make sure they were the “right fit for our institution.” In one recent case, the state shut down a school that had encouraged special needs students to go elsewhere and had failed to provide services, often more expensive than for regular students, for those who did attend. One teacher I interviewed described how the school’s leaders hastily arranged what was meant to look like a special-needs classroom for the benefit of state investigators.
The question raised by every case like this is whether the state is careful enough in handing out charters or diligent enough in policing them. In one bizarre instance, I got a hold of a memo in which an official working for the state Department of Education described how he was offered a bribe by someone at a charter school in New Orleans East that had been the subject of complaints. It turned out the school was run by a group affiliated with Fethullah Gulen, the cleric whom Turkey’s president is now blaming for last year’s coup attempt and the recent assassination of a Russian ambassador. I’ve got no particular insight into those claims, but you would have thought the state might have a better handle on who exactly is running the schools here. That charter was revoked after all this appeared in the newspaper.
If the idea of charter schools is to free teachers and principals from government bureaucracy, then the scandals and the lawsuits have provided ammunition for those who see the need for at least some kind of governmental oversight. And in some important ways, government has reasserted its role in New Orleans. Schools no longer handle their own enrollment. Instead, there’s a complicated matching system, where parents rank their top choices and a computer algorithm assigns their child to a school, with some preference for siblings of current students and geographical proximity. There’s also a centralized hearing office for students facing expulsion, to make sure pupils aren’t getting booted for frivolous reasons. And for students with the most serious mental health needs, there is a program run by the district that blends instruction with intensive psychiatric services.
One factor that has remained fairly consistent throughout the New Orleans experiment is the state’s commitment to shutting schools down, or handing them over to other operators. Not only because they broke the law in some way, but because they haven’t gotten results. Charter schools here typically come up for review after four years, and if they’re still considered “failing” based on the proportion of students passing state exams and a few other factors, they can be closed or offered up to another group. And this actually happens. Two schools here lost their charter just last month. One fell short by only a point and a half on a scale of 150 —and that school was run by a guy who is considered an all-star in the charter movement here. Another recent study suggested the state’s willingness to do this kind of thing, often in the face tearful protests by teachers and students, accounts for somewhere between 25 percent and 40 percent of recent academic gains.
Finally, this is all still a work in progress. Now that most schools are no longer considered “failing” in New Orleans, control is shifting back to the locally elected school board, which will take charge of decisions on opening and closing charters beginning in 2018. And most observers here agree the board will still have a lot of work to do. The number of F-rated schools has dwindled but there are still thousands of students attending schools rated a D or a C.
This is why the idea of Betsy DeVos running the Department of Education makes some people in the choice movement nervous. It has always been a project of an uneasy, left-right political alliance: moderate Democrats who feel traditional urban districts are failing poor, minority kids, and conservatives who emphasize the idea that free markets can be counted on more than government and unions to produce results. DeVos represents the decidedly conservative wing. And the worry is that advocates like her are willing to put too much faith in the idea that simply multiplying options for parents and opening schools to competition will automatically lead to better outcomes.
In heavily Democratic New Orleans, the guiding principle has been not just to create options but try to make sure they are good ones and that students have fair access to them, even if reality hasn’t always lived up to the ideal. This involves a big role for government and, frankly, at least a little bit of paternalism. Parents have options, but for the most part, only those that have been vetted by the state first.
The obvious contrast is Michigan, where DeVos has been critical as an advocate and political donor. Various entities in Michigan can authorize new charter schools, not just a state or local school board, as in Louisiana. Most charters operate as for-profit entities, something a handful of New Orleans charters have tried with uniformly bad results. Some have been allowed to operate for more than a decade without ever getting off the bottom of state rankings. And as The New York Times reported recently, DeVos helped kill a bipartisan measure in the Michigan Legislature that would have beefed up accountability. There are also worries about ulterior motives. POLITICO reported recently about an audio recording in which DeVos and her husband discuss how their Christian faith animates their belief in school reform, explaining that school choice leads to greater “kingdom gain,” an apparent reference to the Kingdom of God. It’s hard not to see that as a nod to the religious schools that often receive funding through voucher programs. Notably, the one in Louisiana has yet to produce the kind of measurable gains that the charters here have.
As secretary of education, DeVos will have considerable leverage over how school accountability works around the country. State legislatures and local school boards may have the ultimate say on education policy in the U.S., but the Department of Education exerts a huge influence with the strings it attaches to federal funding. Trump has promised to fund school choice initiatives to the tune of $20 billion. DeVos could simply require that states use that money to expand voucher programs and then reject grant applications that spell out too rigorous a set of academic standards for private schools that benefit as a result. Under DeVos, parents are probably going to get more options, the question is how good those options will be.