We recall the spectacles as being the “Monday Night Fights.” We watched them during the 10 p.m. news whenever the Orleans school board would meet. The board was an ugly thing to watch, with people screaming back and forth at each other, and that was just the parents in the audience. While there were always at least one or two good people on the board who had no agenda other than to improve education, there was usually a majority of hacks who represented special interests (many eyeing lucrative school board contracts or political factions.) And if there should be a brief moment of civility, someone would stir up race as though to restart the tensions.
For public education in New Orleans to ever survive its own governance, something dramatic would have had to happen. Miraculously something did: Hurricane Katrina.
Rebuilding the city provided the impetus to rebuild education. Most of the city’s schools were taken away from the school board and put under the administration of a state-run recovery district. Before Katrina, the school board had always stood fast against charter schools, not wanting to sacrifice any of their deal-making power. After Katrina, the board, seeing the desperate state of education, supported the charters. In the years to follow, some of the downtrodden old schools would have remarkable turnarounds, and New Orleans would become a national leader in the charter school movement.
There is still an Orleans Parish school board and last June, after more than ten years, all the schools were returned to its jurisdiction. But the distribution of power is different. While the school board continues to oversee the administrative chores of the system, the charter concept has given parents and activists more opportunities to be involved. More power has shifted away from the board and to the school level.
Public education, with some exceptions (i.e. Ben Franklin and Lusher,) had a bad reputation for so long that people are shy to say what seems to now be true, so we will: PUBLIC EDUCATION HAS IMPROVED CONSIDERABLY. Yes, we know there is a lot more to be done, but let’s at least savor the moment. Watching the Monday night news is not the raucous experience that it used to be. That is what happens when an ill wind becomes a fresh breeze.