New Orleans: A School Reform Model
In the past, New Orleans rarely enjoyed good press from national media, but nowadays its public schools rank so high in the estimation of school advocates that it’s being heralded as a possible savior of the country’s leadership and schools.
In his new book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” David Osborne, co-author of Reinventing Government, says that New Orleans’ charter school model is transforming the nation’s outdated, centralized school model into a 21st Century system that could recharge America’s global competitiveness.
In interviews around the country, Osborne, now director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Reinventing America’s Schools Project, repeats the same message he delivered on C-Span’s Book TV.
He told an interviewer that New Orleans’ schools were “famously bad, corrupt, awful” before Katrina prompted the state to take control of most of them and turn them over to semi-autonomous charter operators. Now, he said, the city’s schools “are clearly the fastest improving in the country, if not in American history, stunning.”
Other cities have turned around abysmal schools, often as a result of studying New Orleans’ transformation. Osborne also praises reform in Washington, D.C. and Denver, Colorado.
The results indicate to Osborne that the nation must turn to charter-like schools to meet the challenges of the information age. The charter model transfers decisions such as budgeting, hiring teachers, service contracts and computer software to school-level leaders who know the needs of their students better than off-site bureaucrats. Osborne stresses that school-level autonomy is key to improving schools, not what they are called.
The 20th century model gives supreme authority over dozens or hundreds of schools, depending on the size of the district, to elected or appointed school boards and their superintendents. The 21st century model transfers authority to school specific school boards and principals. In the 21st century model, district school boards monitor the academic results of each school. They close schools with poor performance.
In New Orleans, for example, some charter schools have been closed, while the most effective ones have been asked to replicate. Up until recently, the state’s Recovery School District managed most of the charters, but the schools under RSD control are in the process of being returned to the Orleans Parish School Board.
In an interview with New Orleans Magazine, Osborne said he is “cautiously optimistic” the New Orleans model will, in time, prevail nationwide.
“I think for the next 10 years, it will be the big cities and maybe in 20 years it will be the dominant model,” he said.
“If we can’t make this work,” he said, “we are kind of doomed.”
Osborne says the United States is losing its lead internationally. “The only way we can turn this around is to improve the skill levels of our graduates. A lot is at stake,” he said. “I think what New Orleans has shown is important.”