Moving on

Travis Pillow

Today is my last day editing this blog. After 23 years as a Floridian, six years chronicling the politics and policy of the public education system that educated me, and four and half years writing in this space, I’m moving on to start a new chapter alongside my fiancee, who teaches high school English in New Orleans.

It’s a transition from one hotbed of education reform to another. And it’s got me thinking.

A couple months after I first joined Step Up For Students, I wrote a recap of the 2014 Florida legislative session. It was a bruising one for school choice advocates. My thesis was that all the sturm and drang over how to measure academic outcomes of students who used scholarships to attend private schools, or how to manage the charter school application process, signaled a new era in the politics and policy of public education in our state. We were done fighting over whether charter schools or voucher programs ought to exist. They existed, and it was clear they weren’t going anywhere. We’d moved on to thornier questions about how to govern them.

Looking back, more than four years later, that may have been wishful thinking. In Florida and around the country, advocates and academics burn staggering amounts of intellectual jet fuel litigating whether charter schools are good or bad for public education and whether private school choice is a win-win solution or an affront to American ideals.

In this space, we’ve tried to push the debate in more productive directions. How can the state stop the bad charter school operators, while encouraging new, better ones to open and expand? How can politicians who support public education draw lessons from charter schools and apply them in districts? How can schools of all types foster innovations that will help them meet the educational needs of all their students?

I can’t think of a better time, or a better place, to continue exploring those questions than New Orleans in 2018. The transition to a system of autonomous public schools, most of them governed by charter boards, entered a new phase this month, as all the city’s public schools reunify under the oversight of the local Orleans Parish School Board. This comes at a time when student test scores seem to have plateaued. School system leaders are trying to figure out how the school system that climbed from an F to a C can move from a C to an A.

I’m talking to as many educators as I can. None that I’ve met seems satisfied with where things stand. They’re interested in breaking the stagnation. They’re trying to figure out how a decentralized school system can better serve children with special needs throughout the city. They want to see their school system once again become the linchpin of a thriving black middle class, which suffered a devastating blow when thousands of school employees lost their jobs after Hurricane Katrina. They’re searching for ways to help their students overcome trauma and educational debt, accumulated over generations of injustice. They’re hoping to cultivate new teachers and keep more of them working in the city’s classrooms over the long haul. They’re working on the next generation of education reforms, while national pundits are still litigating the previous one.

A few weeks ago, I attended the graduation ceremony for George Washington Carver High School. The institution represents the rebirth of one of New Orleans’ longest-standing historically black high schools. Since 2012, it’s been run by Collegiate Academies, a charter management organization. I spotted faces in the crowd. The students who faced their peers from the city’s elite, selective-admissions high schools at a regional quiz bowl competition. Two scholars who had lost their older brothers to gun violence. The valedictorian who had to choose between Penn and Stanford.

A succession of speakers told these kids that they were reaching milestones prior generations would have thought unattainable. They were headed into a world full of doubters who didn’t think people who looked like them, or grew up where they did, could achieve what they were setting out to do. And they are destined to prove the doubters wrong. Thinking about their generation-defining accomplishments, and the obstacles they overcame, makes the challenge of figuring out the next generation of education reforms seem altogether doable.

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2 comments

Matthew Ladner
Matthew Ladner July 18, 2018 - 9:38 pm

Congrats Travis- and good luck!

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Anne Francis July 19, 2018 - 3:31 pm

Congratulations, Travis. We will miss you in the hallways of Step Up. Thank you for the work you’ve done to elevate the conversation about educational choice. Looking forward to seeing where you make an impact next.

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