School Choice Works, And They’re Proving It In New Orleans

There’s a fresh round of numbers on academic achievement in Louisiana, and the latest data offers eye-popping evidence of what defenders of the free market have been saying all along. Namely, that when market forces are applied to a problem, those forces generally remediate that problem.

And in what used to be Louisiana’s educational wasteland, those market forces are steadily working a miracle.

The Times-Picayune reports that educational achievement among black kids in Orleans Parish is now higher than elsewhere in the state, just five years after it was the worst in Louisiana.

State data show that 53 percent of African-American youngsters in New Orleans scored at grade level or better on state tests this spring, compared with 51 percent of black students across Louisiana. Just four years ago, only 32 percent of black students in New Orleans had achieved grade level, compared with 43 percent statewide.

The story comes with some pretty amazing graphics showing the effect of the Recovery School District and the multiplicity of its charter schools.

Yes, the rest of the state has seen an increase in educational performance since 2006 – but let’s remember that Orleans Parish is one of the most populous in the state, so a rapid increase in New Orleans will drive an increase in the state’s numbers.

The article mentions that educational attainment among blacks is still dramatically lower than that of white students – 95 percent of white kids in Orleans Parish score at grade level or better, largely because an overwhelming percentage of white kids in New Orleans are at private or Catholic schools which are among the best in the state.

But in 2007, the spread between whites and blacks was 56 points. Now it’s 42 points. A 14-point pickup in four years is pretty significant.

And it’s not a surprise. White people in New Orleans have for generations regarded education as a service to be purchased; the vast majority of white folks in the city abandoned the public schools half a century ago. And because they pick schools for their kids rather than have the government pick those schools for them, and because they’re paying as much as $1,000 per month in tuition or even more in a few cases, those parents are heavily invested in their children’s performance. It’s not a good investment to send your son to an expensive private school if he doesn’t do his homework or acts disruptively in class, and it’s certainly not worth it to be chunking out $1,000 a month for tuition for a private high school if your daughter can’t graduate because she gets knocked up.

Those stakes generally insure that many of the social pathologies which have infected the black community don’t infect white families in New Orleans. Sure, there are other pathologies among Orleanians of pallor – you’ll find drinking and drugs in higher quantities there than in most other places, and the closed society of the blue bloods has probably done more damage to New Orleans’ economic growth over the years than even crime and corruption have.

But a lot of the social ills among the white community in Orleans Parish don’t particularly show up among people who are married with kids. Admittedly, there are very few white families in the city who aren’t at least upper middle class. But you can’t just dismiss that 95 percent figure as “oh, those are just rich people.” Educational attainment – and the behavioral standards which go hand-in-hand with it – is one of the key factors which keeps them rich.

There’s a culture in that highly-successful community which keeps the teen pregnancies and juvenile delinquency low and the test scores high. Competition among the private and Catholic schools for students – and among the parents and kids for spots in those schools – is a big piece of that culture.

What is needed in the city’s black community, and what is beginning to show up with the presence of the charter schools and the competition coming out of them, is that same culture. The element of high tuition costs isn’t involved, and probably won’t be for some time as the income disparity between blacks and whites in New Orleans will take generations to resolve. But as the years go by and it becomes common knowledge what the best charter schools are that everybody wants to get their kids into, the competition and standards born of it will have the same effect.

There has always been a big racial disparity in both education and wealth between blacks and whites in New Orleans. In the last century that disparity only grew, as what had been a vibrant and successful old Creole culture in the city largely fled to Northern cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, among others, while white working class Orleanians exiled themselves to places like Jefferson, St. Bernard and the River Parishes. That left a city of rich whites and poor blacks, and the resulting decline was obvious to all.

But in just five years of school choice in New Orleans, we’re seeing the educational disparity finally begin to shrink. It’s probably not a coincidence that New Orleans is all of a sudden starting to get notice as a city friendly to high-tech business and an entrepreneurial mecca of sorts. In 10 years, as the kids who are driving those increased test scores progress past college and into the job market it’s quite possible the city’s better-educated home-grown work force might drive a prolonged economic recovery that shrinks the wealth disparity as well.

The lesson is unmistakable. We’re seeing what works. It’s time to expand school choice to Louisiana’s currently dead school system – the one in East Baton Rouge Parish.



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