Earlier this week, the Arizona Chamber Foundation and the Arizona Charter Schools Association’s New Schools for Phoenix hosted a luncheon for policymakers, education and business leaders.
Keynoting the event was Neerav Kingsland, who led the movement to rebuild New Orleans’ K-12 system after Hurricane Katrina. After the hurricane, New Orleanians decided that instead of rebuilding the same system that had failed their students for decades, they had an opportunity to thoughtfully and intentionally create a system of excellence. Neerav and others began to look at models around the country to find a city that was providing all students an opportunity at an excellent education.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t find one city that could guarantee all of its kids access to quality schools. So Neerav and the New Schools for New Orleans team created their own model of excellence, based on three fundamental principles:
(1) Educators would run the schools. They chose to give the people closest to the kids the power to make the decisions that impact their education. For New Orleans, this meant an all-charter model, because, as Neerav put it, “a charter is just a non-profit run by an educator.”
(2) Parents would choose the school best for their children and the system would provide transportation to get them there. Choice isn’t choice without a ride. With the government no longer dictating a child’s school based on their zip code, they recognized a need to provide transportation no matter what.
(3) The government would play two, very narrowly tailored roles. The government’s role in the re-imagined all-charter system would only regulate the system for performance and equity. Every school there gets a five-year contract, with central authority handling enrollment and expulsions.
Every state faces different challenges, but New Orleans offers an exciting model for replication for struggling school districts. Funding in New Orleans is focused on instruction, not tied up in administration. Under the New Orleans model, the state charges a 2 percent fee from the per-pupil amount to cover administrative costs, with the remaining 98 percent of the dollars going directly into the schools.
This fundamental rethinking of K-12 education has brought New Orleans’ student achievement from among the worst, to about average. Their high school dropout rate has been cut in half. While there is still work to be done (in Neerav’s words, “we’ve gone from an F to a C.”), New Orleans has improved its trajectory in record-breaking time. No other city has been able to improve student outcomes this quickly and meaningfully.
To get to the next level, in New Orleans or in any education system, we need an intentional, focused commitment to attracting and retaining the very best teachers. We know that an effective teacher can have an enormous impact on a child’s future, and an ineffective teacher can have an equally significant, negative impact. This means we need to get our top university students into teaching programs, and provide them with the dollars and respect necessary to keep them in the profession.
New Orleans is on the path to being one of the first cities in the country to provide a quality education to all of its students. It’s a model worth considering.