New Orleans, defining public education anew — through choice

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What was once viewed as a “morally, financially and educationally bankrupt” education system is now a model for a dramatically different approach to public education, according to two educators, one a former provost at the University of Florida, writing recently in the St. Petersburg Times about the innovations driving education in New Orleans.

Brian Dassler, principal of the KIPP Renaissance High School in New Orleans, and David R. Colburn, who served as provost from UF from 2000 to 2005 and now runs the university’s Ruben Askew Institute on Politics and Society, note that states and school systems would do well to study the ingredients that lifted the city’s public schools. Central to that success, the pair argues: The school system “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.”

They write:

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.

How the school system developed the innovations is central to Dassler and Colburn’s argument, and signals what they think states and school districts must do to replicate that progress:

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.