Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans -- Cokie's hometown -- breaking the levees and damaging or destroying almost all of the city's already dilapidated and disgraceful public schools. The experiment in education that followed has sparked a fierce national debate, pitting advocates of independent charter schools against supporters of the traditional, central office-run system.
Lost in the cacophony of competing claims are the people who count: the children. More than 80 percent of these kids are poor, and their very fragile futures are at stake.
There's not much argument about how miserably the schools failed their students pre-Katrina. Two years before the storm hit, Louisiana voters had already given the state the power to take over failing schools, wresting them away from the control of locally elected school boards. Of the 16 schools then eligible for transfer to the state's Recovery School District, 15 were in New Orleans.
Those schools were the worst of a bad system, run by an Orleans Parish School Board that was inefficient at best, corrupt at worst. The board swiftly sent packing a series of superintendents vowing change -- eight of them in seven years. More than 60 percent of the system's kids attended failing schools.
When hundreds of thousands of families fled the city in the wake of Katrina, at first it wasn't clear whether the schools would ever reopen at all. The school board fired 7,000 employees and allowed the contract with the teachers' union to expire without renewal. But then Sen. Mary Landrieu directed millions in federal money designated for charter schools to the city, along with almost $2 billion from FEMA.
The state took over all but the best-performing schools, eventually closing down every traditional school and going to an all-charter model. Most of the remaining schools run by Orleans Parish also converted to charters, so that now, more than 90 percent of its public school students attend independently run charters.
That's why the attention of educators and education reformers around the country is focused on the Crescent City.
The supporters of the new system point to impressive numbers: The high school graduation rate has climbed to 73 percent from a pre-Katrina 54 percent, with the black male rate higher than the national average; college admissions have increased from 45 percent to 58 percent; now, almost all students take college entry exams, up from just over half of them, and they are getting better scores. Failing schools have been all but eliminated.
What, then, is the problem? Critics complain that many of the teachers are young, white newcomers to New Orleans who are culturally insensitive to the overwhelmingly (85 percent) African-American student population. (The percentage of white students has actually gone up since Katrina.) And, they add, the turnover rate among these young teachers is high, making it stressful for the children.
But the real issue is one of control: The Orleans Parish School Board, the entity elected by the citizens -- many of them parents of schoolchildren -- has lost control of education in the city, ceding it unwillingly to state-appointed administrators and private companies that run charter schools for profit. And the teachers' union has been almost entirely stripped of its power.
Supporters of the sweeping changes counter that the independent boards of each charter school act as representatives of the community, accountable to parents and teachers, and that the 400 mostly African-American board members citywide have engaged the public in New Orleans education for the first time. It was those board members last year who were instrumental in passing a bond issue to pay for the maintenance of the shiny new schools built with FEMA money.
The pitched battle over that vote became a referendum on school control, since some of the money would go to the state-run Recovery School District. Sixty percent of the voters approved it, making it clear that they like things the way they are. That's just about the same number who see the increase in charter schools as a positive development in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation/NPR poll.
Now, grown-ups should stop fighting about who's in charge and concentrate on the kids. Even with failing schools shut down, too many students still spend their days in C- and D-rated classrooms and then go home to high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods. The only way out of that poverty is a good education. That's what counts, not anyone's theories and not whether New Orleans should serve as a model for other cities.
These kids deserve a chance to succeed. It's up to the adults to make sure they get it.