We’re awash in tenth-anniversary takes on New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina. Sadly, some bring us no closer to the complicated truth. A recent New York Times column by business journalism professor Andrea Gabor provides a telling case in point.
It raises a few legitimate points, some of which emanate from within the reform movement. But it provides little support for its central thesis — that the creation of an all-choice system has “hurt” New Orleans’ most vulnerable children.
It drew a forceful response and debunking. Gabor went on to answer her critics. She makes five points. The first three are cautions to keep in mind while analyzing the system’s recent success. The last two raise legitimate issues about the extent to which New Orleans residents, especially low-income black ones, have had a say in the reforms.
None of those points addresses the central flaw of her original argument. A wide range of empirical measures show New Orleans children are better off now than before the storm. There’s a long way to go, but results keep improving. Gabor offers no real support for her claim that changes have “come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children.”
There is work left to be done. Some students still fall through the cracks. Parents could use help navigating the their options in a city where charter schools have largely become the system. Many reformers hope to ensure the next 10 years of change are done “with” rather than “to” the New Orleanians who were most harmed by the old system.
Some critical voices are worth listening to. They helped push for changes to special education, discipline, unified enrollment and other equity issues. But others are simply trying to smear the very idea of systemic reform, to stop it from spreading to other cities.
In the wake of a tragedy, New Orleans school officials managed to cobble together a model that fuses a triumph of liberal urban reform with conservative entrepreneurialism and is spawning new programs focused on the whole child. Critics can help make this new approach more equitable and inclusive, but only when they’re on point.