By Richard S. Davis
There’s no quit in education reformers. Having been rebuffed in the Legislature, a group of them just filed an initiative to put public charter schools on the November ballot. It’s the fourth time voters will have a chance to embrace the concept. The timing is right.
Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, whose legislative district includes five of the state’s worst schools, tried to pass public charter school legislation last session.
“States with the strongest charter school laws are getting the best results,” he said in announcing support for the initiative. “It makes no sense for Washington to continue to ban charter schools …”
New Orleans offers a proof point. I recently returned from a conference there. Currently, 78 percent of public school students in the parish (county) attend charter schools — tuition-free, independently managed public schools.
In the years since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, progress in schools in the Recovery School District, a state-run district that takes over failing schools, has drawn national acclaim. The RSD did not emerge in Katrina’s wake. It was established by legislation passed in 2003 to inspire a recovery from academic failure.
Leslie Jacobs, the business executive and education advocate credited with leading reform efforts, calls the New Orleans schools pre-Katrina “academically, morally and financially bankrupt.”
“Systemic incompetence is much harder to fix than corruption,” she said, “and New Orleans had both.”
Systemic problems don’t lend themselves to incremental fixes. The RSD dramatically departs from the typical centralized administrative model.
Superintendent Patrick Dobard describes it as “a system of schools, not a school system.”
“We want to prevent bureaucracy,” he said.
Most decisions are made at the building level, including significant reliance on public charter schools. Of the 66 RSD schools currently open in New Orleans, 50 are public charter schools.
RSD schools set their own compensation schedules and hours of operation, select their own curricula, and even turn to the marketplace for food and bus services. There’s no teacher tenure or seniority protection. But while freed of bureaucratic micromanagement, the schools remain subject to the state’s school accountability system.
The Louisiana department of education reported last week that “the most improved district in the state … is the Recovery School District (RSD) New Orleans, where the proficiency level has more than doubled, from 23 percent in 2007, to 51 percent in 2012.”
It’s not a function of demographic changes in New Orleans. The post-Katrina student demographics didn’t change much.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls the progress “stunning,” saying New Orleans is the most improved school district in the country.
That, of course, does not make it the best school district in the country. As Jacobs says, they started from a bankrupt baseline. Yet, the transformation is undeniably inspiring.
The hurricane gave New Orleans a fresh start, an infusion of federal dollars to rebuild public schools, and an opportunity to innovate without having to battle an entrenched bureaucracy committed to the status quo. In the post-Katrina chaos, there was no status quo left to maintain. So the reformers were able to get things done. They now have a record of success that assures continuation and expansion of the reform efforts.
Seattle isn’t New Orleans; Washington isn’t Louisiana. But we can learn from them. Caroline Roemer Shirley, the head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, cites three critical factors: accountability, autonomy and choice. With the framework in place, set high standards: “The lower the bar is, the lower we will perform.”
We have many good schools. Some are excellent. Too often, complacency reigns, particularly when advocates for change confront union resistance. We’re assured we need only put more resources in the current system to gain even better outcomes.
Yet, too many Washington students perform below grade level; nearly a quarter of them fail to graduate. Some of the biggest problems are in urban schools serving low-income and black families with few options.
Set the bar high and give all students a chance to clear it. There’s nothing radical about an initiative authorizing just 40 public charter schools. With 5,400 public charter schools serving 2 million students nationally, there’s no shortage of examples of how to get it right. It begins by ending the prohibition.
Richard S. Davis, president of the Washington Research Council, writes on public policy, economics and politics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.