Before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, a local leader observed about the city's public schools that they were "morally, financially and educationally bankrupt." By all indicators, the schools were among the lowest performing in the country. The valedictorian at one of the district's high school, for example, failed to pass the equivalent of the FCAT.
Much has changed.
New Orleans has become the model for a dramatically different approach to public education — one that states and communities would do well to study.
City leaders and parents have embraced three innovations for its public schools. First, all parents can choose the school their children attend. Second, the city has embraced the charter school movement, and nearly 70 percent of students attend charter schools this year. Third, collective bargaining does not enter into decisions about teacher employment, termination or compensation.
When flooding from Hurricane Katrina destroyed many of the city's schools, it also swept away the attendance boundaries that determined which schools the students would attend (this occurred in large measure because so many schools were flooded and deemed unsafe). The absence of school boundaries has fractured neighborhoods and divided families to some extent, with neighbors and siblings going to different schools in different parts of the city. But it has also provided real choice to all families regardless of their financial means.
What had been a luxury afforded only to higher-income families in the past is now available to every parent in the city.
The various charter school networks and stand-alone charter schools in New Orleans are governed by local boards of directors. Charter school board members are unpaid and uncompensated for their work; they are community leaders with expertise ranging from finance to human resources to law. They are not necessarily professional educators, and they are not politicians. Boards are tasked with making sure the conditions of the charter are met, including financial solvency and student achievement.
The excessive influence of certain interest groups in the election of school board members has been eliminated, leaving school leaders and teachers in New Orleans free from most distracting political pressures.
Equally important, principals in New Orleans now have the authority and autonomy to hire, fire and pay teachers as they believe appropriate. Teachers in New Orleans have annual contracts and no longer have lifetime protection provided by tenure.
One of the most frequent criticisms of teachers unions and collective bargaining is the degree to which they protect incompetent teachers — those atypical individuals who damage children and give everyone in the profession a bad name. New Orleans schools do not have to deal with this situation any longer.
When a teacher at one school recently refused to teach students with special needs, she was placed on an improvement plan. She subsequently received support and coaching to help her improve, but when that failed, she was fired. Such a process, if it was pursued at all in a collective bargaining environment, might have taken years. In the meantime, many students would have borne the consequence.
Charter schools offer a healthy alternative to public schools but, to ensure that they do, they must be held to the same high standards by local communities. Any diminishing of those standards calls into question the integrity of the charter option. The Netherlands, which provides parents with numerous school options, insists on national standards of academic success for all students. These strict standards are enforced in the charter authorization and reauthorization in Louisiana, Florida and elsewhere.
As state and local authorities examine the Florida public school system, they would be wise to look closely at the New Orleans and the Netherlands models. We think parents and students deserve a choice in their schools; that the entire system must be committed to excellence; that each school should have active boards of parents and community leaders, but not politicians; that principals and teachers must be evaluated regularly and be held accountable; and that the best teachers should be rewarded for excellence.
Brian Dassler, Broward County's teacher of the year in 2007, is principal of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Renaissance High School in New Orleans, and David R. Colburn is director of the Reubin Askew Institute at the University of Florida.