Monday, April 30, 2012

New Orleans and Old Libertarians

Washington Post Op-Ed page staff writer Jo-Ann Armao enthused at length on Friday about the miraculous things happening in the erst-while very public schools of New Orleans in this post-Katrina era. In between gulps of Kool-Aid, Armao wrote about wonderful "turn-arounds" of schools once imprisoned in the grasp of evil teachers unions and inept traditional administrators.
Most of the buzz about the city’s reforms focuses on the banishment of organized labor and the proliferation of charter schools, which enroll nearly 80 percent of public school students, up from 1.5 percent pre-Katrina. But what really distinguishes New Orleans is how government has re­defined its role in education: stepping back from directly running schools and empowering educators to make the decisions about hours, curriculum and school culture that best drive student learning. Now, state and school-district officials mostly regulate and monitor — setting standards, ensuring equity and closing failing schools. Instead of a traditional school system, there is a system of schools in what officials liken to a fenced-in free market. Families have more choice about where their children can best succeed, they say, and educators have more opportunity to choose a school that best aligns with their approach.
OK. The stage is set. The free market in public education has come to post-Katrina New Orleans. And what has resulted? Armao goes on:
Since 2006, New Orleans students have halved the achievement gap with their state counterparts. They are on track to, in the next five years, make this the first urban city in the country to exceed its state’s average test scores. The share of students proficient on state tests rose from 35 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2011; 40 percent of students attended schools identified by the state as “academically unacceptable” in 2011, down from 78 percent in 2005.
Nothing short of a miracle, if you believe it; but only a fool would.

Milton Friedman, in one of his last public utterances before he died, called Katrina an "opportunity." "Most New Orleans schools are in ruins as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity.” What he meant, of course, was that the tragedy presented the opportunity to privatize and "charterize" the New Orleans public school system. Friedman was being perfectly consistent with what he had written in 2002 about the use of "crises" to open the door to favored reforms. "Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That … is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive … until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

There is much that is shocking in Friedman's insensitivity and cynicism, not the least of which is that his comments imply that mere "perceived crises" (not necessarily "real"?) can present the opportunity to implement a radically different political philosophy. We have had enough of "manufactured crises" in the business of education reform.

But back to Armao. Yes, things might be different in the New Orleans public schools, but attributing those differences to free-market reforms is ludicrously naive. What happened from pre- to post-Katrina was a dramatic shift in the city's demographics. Between the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census, the population of New Orleans changed like so:

New Orleans Population Change, 2000—2010, by Race
Race 2000 2010 % Change
Non-Black 156,000 137,000 –12%
Black 329,000 207,000 –37%

More than one in every three Black persons in New Orleans was displaced from the city by Katrina, because they lacked the resources to return after the hurricane or because they lived in the wards most severely affected by the flood. About one in ten non-Black persons (overwhelmingly non-Hispanic White) was similarly displaced.

Any attempt to draw a conclusion about charter schooling or free-market reforms from pre-Katrina vs post-Katrina test score comparisons would be a good exercise for a Freshman course in logic. That the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post fails at such an exercise should be both surprising to readers and embarrassing to the editorial staff.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

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