Archive for the ‘School Choice’ Category

Daniel Henninger Observes Leftist Opposition To Education Reform

February 17, 2014

Late last week Daniel Henninger had a really good column in the Wall Street Journal. He was discussing President Obama’s latest faux-concern, the issue of “income inequality.” In a column which was subtitled “The left will never support the solution to income inequality,” Mr. Henninger was looking at the new mayor of New York City, progessive Leftist Bill de Blasio, and he closed his WSJ column this way:

Let’s cut to the chase: The real issue in the American version of this subject is the low incomes of the inner-city poor. And let’s put on the table one thing nearly all agree on: A successful education improves lifetime earnings. This assumes one is living in an economy with better than moribund growth, an assumption no one in the U.S. or Western Europe can make anymore.

If there is one political goal all Democratic progressives agree on it’s this: They will resist, squash and kill any attempt anywhere in the U.S. to educate those low-income or no-income inner-city kids in alternatives to the public schools run by the party’s industrial-age unions.

Reforming that public-school monopoly is the litmus test of seriousness on income inequality. That monopoly is the primary cause of America’s post-1970s social-policy failure. And that monopoly will emerge from the Obama presidency and de Blasio mayoralty intact. So will income inequality.

Congressman Paul Ryan Talks Education In WSJ

January 26, 2014

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin wrote a feature column in the Wall Street Journal this weekend to discuss the “war on poverty” as it turns 50 years old. Congressman Ryan, who worked extensively with the late Jack Kemp in the early 1990′s before becoming a Congressman, is advocating many of the ideals that Kemp spent a career fighting for, such as parental choice in education, and local leadership taking control and solving problems, rather than bureaucrats in Washington far removed from the situation.

The two excerpts below really highlight some smart, innovative thinking when it comes to education. They say sunlight is the best disinfectant, and I think Congressman Ryan shining a light on these ideas in the WSJ is really important. I’m curious to know your thoughts.

One day at Pulaski High School in Milwaukee, a fight broke out between two students. The staff separated them, but one of the students, a young woman named Marianna, refused to relent. She continued to fight—now with the staff—and to cause a stir. Then a call went out over the school radio for “Lulu” to respond. Soon, Marianna began to calm down. Once she arrived, Lulu quickly defused the situation. Of all the people at Pulaski High—all the teachers and administrators—only one person got through to Marianna that day, and it was Lulu.

“Lulu” is Mrs. Louisa, one of five youth advisers in Pulaski High’s Violence-Free Zone program. Along with program head Andre Robinson and site supervisor Naomi Perez, they work as a band of roving mentors. On a typical day, you’ll find them walking the halls in black polo shirts. They chat with students, break up fights and help with homework. Most of them are recent alumni who grew up in the inner city, and they have the scars to prove it. They’ve been part of gangs. They’ve seen violence firsthand.

But they don’t have education degrees or state certification. They have something more important: credibility. The youth advisers understand what the students are going through because they’ve had the same struggles. That credibility creates trust, and so the students listen to them. In the two years since the program started, suspensions at Pulaski High are down by 60%, and daily attendance is up by nearly 10%. Fourteen gangs used to roam the school grounds; today, they’ve all but disappeared. The school tried all sorts of things to keep students safe—more police presence, more cameras. But only this program worked.

Mrs. Louisa, Mrs. Perez and Mr. Robinson aren’t just keeping kids in school; they’re fighting poverty on the front lines. If you graduate from high school, you’re much less likely to end up poor. According to the Census Bureau, a high-school graduate makes $10,000 a year more, on average, than a high-school dropout, and a college graduate makes $36,000 more. Ever since that day at Pulaski High, Marianna has improved her grades and now she is looking at colleges. Yet for all its professed concern about families in need, Washington is more concerned with protecting the status quo than with pursuing what actually works.

Later:

• In education, give teachers more control, and give parents a choice. Some of the most exciting work in education has occurred in Indiana. Three years ago, then-governor Mitch Daniels shepherded through the legislature several bold reforms.

Before the reforms, union-negotiated contracts required teachers to earn compensation based on seniority, not performance, and the contracts dictated all aspects of the classroom experience, from the humidity level in the school to the number of hours a teacher must spend with students. Under the new laws, teachers’ pay is based on performance. In exchange, they have more control over the classroom. Collective bargaining covers only wages and benefits, so teachers can tailor the curriculum to the needs of their students.

Low-income families are also now eligible for tuition vouchers on a sliding scale, and the reforms allow parents unhappy with a low-performing public school to turn it into a charter school with the approval of their local school board.

If You Can’t Get More Public School Money Legislatively, Ask The Courts.

January 18, 2014

Kansas Democracy Lesson

A test of whether judges can overrule elected officials on taxes and spending.

Jan. 16, 2014 7:07 p.m. ET

If there’s one certain conclusion from the last 30 years of education reform, it is that more money doesn’t yield better student results. But you wouldn’t know it from the debate in Kansas, where activists are trying to get the state Supreme Court to overrule the legislature and spend at least $500 million more a year on schools.

This is a test of democracy with national resonance. The Kansas Constitution requires that “the legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” In 2005 the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in a similar challenge that state aid to local school districts was insufficient and must rise to $4,400 per student. This is in addition to the $3,000 state aid per student for special ed and other programs and on top of what local school districts spend.

Eight years later spending has risen but test scores are flat, and now union activists allege that funding under Republican Governor Sam Brownback has fallen. That is only true if you include the one-time infusion from the Obama stimulus in 2010 and 2011. Apart from the stimulus, which was never meant to be permanent, Kansas school appropriations have risen slowly but steadily every year.

Judicially imposed school spending is a familiar strategy when unions lose in the legislature. Courts in about half the states mandated additional funding in the 1980s and ’90s after lawsuits alleged that spending was inequitable or inadequate.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback Associated Press

In 1985 a Missouri judge took partial control of the Kansas City public schools on grounds of insufficient funding for minority schools. The judge ordered the state to spend $2 billion over 12 years. Per student funding more than doubled (to about $25,000 per student in today’s dollars) and the student-teacher ratio fell to 13 to 1.

The state built 15 new schools with computer and robotics centers, Olympic-sized swimming pools, and even a wildlife sanctuary. If money produces student achievement, it would have shown up in Kansas City. But as a Cato Institute study documented, a decade later black student achievement had not improved and even the judge admitted it was a failed experiment.

A study in 2009 by scholars Alfred Lindseth and Eric Hanushek examined public school performance in Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wyoming—the four states with the largest increase in funding due to court orders. They found that in three of the four states, “notwithstanding these dramatic spending increases, we found that student performance has languished.”

Test scores in these states have “not measurably improved relative to other states that did not have anywhere near the same influx of new school money.” The only improvement was in Massachusetts because its reforms included tough “non-financial” accountability standards.

Kansas school funding is more than adequate, with the state and local school districts combined spending about $11,776 per student on average. The state now spends about 50.5% of its budget on K-12 schools, which ranks fourth among states. If the lawsuit succeeds, the state would have to spend about 62%.

That would leave little for other priorities like roads or higher education unless the state raises taxes, which is probably the lawsuit’s real goal. Mr. Brownback and the GOP legislature cut taxes across the board in 2012, reducing the top income-tax rate to 4.9% from 6.45% and the tax on numerous small businesses to zero.

The plaintiffs claim there would be plenty of money for schools if not for the tax cut. But the Kansas Policy Institute, a local think tank, argues that the lawsuit’s spending could require a 23% income-tax increase or a 20% rise in local property taxes. Mr. Brownback’s tax cut is already attracting business to the state from its neighboring states, and a tax increase would undercut that economic progress.

This is also a test of the state Supreme Court. Four of the seven Justices were appointed by former Governor Kathleen Sebelius, of ObamaCare fame, and nominees are chosen by a commission dominated by the State Bar Association. The commission selects three potential nominees, and the Governor must choose one of the three.

This gives the lawyers’ guild effective control of the judiciary, creating a conflict of interest and pushing the judiciary to the left. Kansas Republicans want to change this selection process and let the Governor nominate state Supreme Court judges subject to state Senate confirmation, following the federal model. If the Justices impose an undemocratic tax increase, the GOP should move swiftly to reform judicial selection.

In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court in Horne v. Flores reversed a judicial funding mandate in Arizona because “the weight of the evidence” indicates that accountability reforms, “much more than court-imposed funding mandates, lead to improved educational opportunities.” The Kansas Supreme Court should take that logic and precedent to heart.

Copyright 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

National School Choice Week is coming!

January 7, 2014
Register for rally today at  www.schoolchoicetrain.com

Register for rally today at www.schoolchoicetrain.com

Louisiana Voucher Assault, Round 2

December 3, 2013

Justice’s lawsuit takes a bizarre turn to keep kids in rotten schools.

Dec. 1, 2013 6:45 p.m. ET

The Justice Department campaign against Louisiana school vouchers gets curiouser and curiouser. Attorney General Eric Holder’s troops are now trying to prevent black parents from joining the case by amending their original lawsuit to block the vouchers in 22 districts.

Some Republicans in Washington, D.C., interpreted this motion as Justice dropping its lawsuit, but no one should be fooled. Justice now wants federal courts to establish what would essentially be a preclearance process letting DOJ approve every voucher.

Under Louisiana’s voucher law, only students from families with incomes below 250% of the poverty line and who attend schools with a C grade or below are eligible for vouchers. Black kids received over 85% of the 6,800 vouchers this year, and 93% of their parents express satisfaction with the program.

But that doesn’t matter to Mr. Holder’s prosecutors, who sued in August on grounds that vouchers may lead to segregation under judicial orders dating to the 1970s. The original lawsuit literally claims, for instance, that black kids who use vouchers to attend private schools could leave public schools more white.

This objection has proven to be unfounded. Boston University political scientist Christine Rossell, who has spent 40 years studying school desegregation plans, has analyzed the Louisiana voucher data. She concluded in a study last month that vouchers overall had “no negative effect on school desegregation” and substantially improved integration in St. James and Lincoln parishes.

In September, parents of voucher students represented by the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options sought to intervene in the case. Justice at first argued that parents didn’t have a direct interest in the litigation since Justice was not “seeking to end the [voucher] Program,” though the department was seeking a permanent injunction.

That looked like a loser, so now DOJ says it wants federal Judge Ivan Lemelle to approve a “process to ensure that the State provides necessary information and complies with its desegregation obligations.” The goal here is to put the federal bureaucracy in charge.

Justice wants to review data on all voucher applicants including their race, public school district, whether and why they are granted a voucher and the private school to which they were assigned. And it wants that info at least 45 days before parents are notified that their kids will get a voucher. Why? Because the feds don’t want parents to know if the feds knock their kids from the voucher list.

DOJ is also claiming federal jurisdiction over the entire state, not merely the 22 districts under desegregation orders. Justice says it wants information on all voucher applicants, “including those in school districts not operating under federal desegregation orders, in order to review compliance with this Court’s [desegregation] orders that apply to private schools.” Translation: DOJ is threatening to audit private schools that admit voucher students. Shaking down private schools is another way to stunt the program.

At a November hearing, Judge Lemelle expressed skepticism of Justice’s case. Vouchers are “promoting racial balance in the school system,” he said, and “I don’t want to do anything to thwart that.” The judge has given the state and feds 60 days to agree to a review process. The Obama Administration should take this time to drop its morally offensive assault on the education of minority children.

Copyright 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

The Texas Battle of the School Choice Lobbying Powers

November 14, 2013

There are two lobbying organizations that are battling over School Choice legislation in Texas.

The current heavy-weight is “Raise Your Hand Texas”, and it opposes all School Choice legislation.

The up-and-comer is “Texans for Education Reform”, which supports limited School Choice legislation and opposes  “Raise Your Hand Texas”.  TER currently supports expansion of student access to online courses paid for by the state, removing the cap on the number of charter schools in the state, and enacting a strong “parent trigger” law.  Follow this link for an explanation of the “parent trigger”.  I hope that after TER succeeds with these limited goals, it will move on to more the aggressive goals, tuition scholarships and tuition tax-credits.

We need to support TER.  Like their Facebook page!  It wants to defeat “Raise Your Hand Texas”, school choice’s big bully.

The Softer Side of “No Excuses” at KIPP Academy

October 25, 2013

There are many excellent charter schools in Texas, but KIPP Academy, being one of the oldest “No Excuses” charter schools, has had the most said about it, both positive and negative.  This Education Next article is an accurate look inside a KIPP Academy in New Orleans.

Enjoy!

Charter-school parents march in New York to secure a civil right: education.

October 11, 2013

The Brooklyn Bridge

It’s too bad every New Yorker who plans to vote in the city’s mayoral election Nov. 5 couldn’t be at the Brooklyn Bridge Tuesday morning. They would have seen the single most important issue in the race between Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota. It’s not stop-and-frisk.

Thousands and thousands of charter-school parents with their young children—most looked to be in the first to fourth grades—marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to save their schools.

When Bill de Blasio won the Democratic nomination for mayor, the first question many asked was whether Mr. de Blasio’s intention to heavily regulate the police department’s stop-and-frisk program would put the city’s years of low-crime calm at risk.

But this big Brooklyn Bridge march of mothers, fathers and kids alters the calculus of next month’s vote. The crime issue, though important, is ultimately about self-interest.

By contrast, most New York voters—especially better-off white voters who’ve already made it here—have no direct stake whatsoever in New York City’s charter schools. They do, however, have a stake in the integrity of their political beliefs.

For decades, New York’s inner-city schools sent wave after wave of students into the world without the skills to do much more than achieve a minimal level of lifetime earnings, if that. This failure, repeated in so many large cities, remains the greatest moral catastrophe in the political life of the United States.

In New York, 20,000 parents and children marched on Oct. 8 in support of charter schools.

In 1999, the charter-school movement began in New York City with a handful of schools given independence from years of encrusted union rules and city regulations that made real learning virtually impossible in the city’s chaotic schools. The project flourished. Now nearly 200 charter schools teach some 70,000 students.

When the legislative limit on new charter-school openings arrives, New York’s next mayor will have to lobby the Albany legislature hard for permission to expand these lifeboats for the city’s poorest kids. So let’s put the politics of the mayoral election this way: Some 20,000 black and Hispanic parents and their kids would not have traveled from their neighborhoods—77% of the city’s charters are in Harlem, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn—to march across that famous bridge if Bill de Blasio were not running for mayor. They think Mr. de Blasio is going to kill the charter-school movement in New York City. And they think this is a civil-rights issue.

One thing these 20- and 30-something parents have in common with their counterparts who live in Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Manhattan below 96th Street is that they weren’t even born when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. But for them, you couldn’t miss that the dream described 50 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial was alive on the Brooklyn Bridge.

A lady with a bullhorn: “What do we want? Choice! When do we want it? Now!” A sign: “Let my children learn.” And bringing the politics to the present, one sign said simply: “Charters for the 99%.”

Many voters in the parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn that have good public- or private-school options will still vote for Bill de Blasio, either because they don’t spend much time on these out-of-area moral dilemmas or they think: It can’t be that bad, can it? Bill de Blasio won’t actually kill these people’s schools, will he?

Yes, it can be that bad.

In a now-famous statement, Mr. de Blasio recently said of charter-school pioneer Eva Moskowitz: “There is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, OK?” What this means is that Mr. de Blasio, under pressure from the city’s teachers union, will start demanding rent payments from public charter schools that now operate rent-free in the same buildings occupied by traditional public schools.

If the next mayor makes the charters pay rent in the city’s expensive real-estate market—essentially imposing a regressive tax on them—over time the schools’ budgets will suffocate and they’ll start to die. It will be a slow death, so Mr. de Blasio’s voters won’t notice what’s happening in Harlem, Brooklyn and the South Bronx.

The city’s charter movement has attracted innovative school operators such as KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Harlem Village Academies and others. For the parents who win the annual lottery to get their kids into these schools, the result is an educational environment of achievement, discipline and esprit—what any parent wants. Given Mr. de Blasio’s intentions, these innovators will start to leave the city. One of the best things New York City has ever done will go away.

Sounds melodramatic? You bet it is. Why do you think those people were on that bridge?

How Democratic politicians like Bill de Blasio and the unionized teachers’ movement ended up so at odds with the city’s black children will fall to future historians to explain. But that’s where they are. What remains to be seen, and will be seen Nov. 5, is how many New Yorkers are in that same place.

Write to henninger@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared October 10, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Bill de Blasio and Civil Rights.

Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

WSJ: Inside the Nation’s Biggest Experiment in School Choice

September 30, 2013

The Wall Street Journal has run a pretty extensive article about the education revolution taking place in Louisiana, specifically in New Orleans. It’s well worth reading. (If you have WSJ access, it’s well worth looking at the web version of the story for the graphics included in the print edition of the story).

By Stephanie Banchero

NEW ORLEANS—Kenisha Nelson tried to walk her son Kaleb into his new elementary school, Akili Academy, but the third-grader slipped from her hand and bolted to the front door. “I got this, mom,” he said.

Kenisha Nelson reviewed homework with her son Kaleb, who started at Akili Academy this year for third grade. His previous school, Benjamin E.Mays, was closed for failing to meet state testing goals. Ms. Nelson started working in February to choose a new school for Kaleb.

The first day of school turned out to be the easiest leg of Ms. Nelson’s journey through the nation’s largest experiment in school choice. She had searched since winter for the best campus with open spots for her 8-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter.

In the end, she said, “it was a great outcome and worth missing those days at work and running around to schools to find good ones.”

There is broad acknowledgment that local schools are performing better since Hurricane Katrina washed away New Orleans’ failing public education system and state authorities took control of many campuses here.Graduation rates went to 78% last year from 52% before Katrina—surpassing Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif., cities also struggling to boost achievement among lower-income students. The share of New Orleans students proficient in math, reading, science and social studies increased to 58% in 2012 from 35% before the 2005 storm, state data shows.

School officials now want to ramp up improvements, saying the city’s education marketplace still needs work. The enrollment system is complicated. There are far fewer available seats at good schools than at poor ones, leaving many families to choose between bad and worse. And few students can get into top-rated schools because of limited seats and strict admissions policies.

Kenisha Nelson stands with her son Kyler, right, after putting Kaleb on the bus in New Orleans at the beginning of the school year.

Boosters, including Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, say New Orleans points to the future of public education. Giving parents a choice of schools, they say, fosters competition that weeds out badly run campuses. Academically, New Orleans is improving faster than any school district in Louisiana.

“I think the devastation of Katrina brought a lot of eyes to New Orleans and it brought in a lot of new people who want to make changes and do the right thing for our kids,” said Leslie Hunter, whose son and daughter attend high school here. “It might not be perfect, but at least people are finally trying to do something to make it better.”

Many parents say it takes extra effort to find an acceptable campus. “If parents want a good school for their kids,” said Ms. Nelson, a 36-year-old single mother, “they have to take a stand and do all the work themselves.”

Leslie Jacobs, a businesswoman who served on the state board of education and helped guide the schools overhaul, said New Orleans has built a foundation for better schools since the hurricane. “Now we are entering into phase two, where we need to build a more sophisticated model,” she said. “The next few years will be the bigger push up the hill.”

Ava Howard, 28, right, rested with her four children at the annual Schools Expo held in the Superdome in February, where parents can learn about enrollment options.

State Schools Superintendent John White, who arrived in Louisiana two years ago, supports the idea of public education as a marketplace but said the New Orleans system had lacked order. “Government needs to be here for equity of resources, equity of access and equity of outcomes,” said the 37-year-old former executive of Teach for America and former deputy chancellor of New York City Schools.

Most of the city’s schools were failing long before Katrina destroyed dozens of campuses. The storm killed at least 1,800 people and displaced about 65,000 students, mostly low-income African Americans.

The Orleans Parish School Board fired its teachers after the storm, and the state board of education took control of all but the 13 best schools, which remain under the local board.

The state converted most of the campuses into charter schools, which hired their own nonunion teachers. Today, more than a quarter of the instructors are from Teach for America, a national teacher training program that recruits college graduates from around the U.S.

Since Katrina, the average teacher salary in New Orleans has risen slower than the state average but in 2011 was 20% higher than before the storm: $47,878 compared with the statewide average of $49,246, state data shows.

New Orleans, which previously spent about the same as other Louisiana districts, tallied about $13,000 per pupil in 2011, compared with the state spending average of $11,000 that year, according to state data. The city spent $8,000 per pupil before Katrina, records show.

Denver, Chicago and Cleveland have embraced school choice on a smaller scale, but none give as much freedom—to parents and campuses—as New Orleans does: About 84% of its 42,000 public school students attend charters, the largest share of any district in the U.S.

Charter schools are largely free to manage their own budgets and hiring, set curriculum and schedules, and select textbooks. The lowest performing schools are eventually closed by state officials or replaced with new operators.

For the school year that started in August, parents picked among 78 charter schools, as well as eight traditional campuses, one independent school with a board appointed by the governor and 38 private schools that are paid with state-issued tuition vouchers. To help guide the selection, public schools are issued grades of A to F, based on academic performance.

Despite the city’s rapidly improving student test scores, most schools are still far from earning top ratings, limiting parent choices.

Of the nearly 12,300 slots available in the citywide lottery for this school year, 20% were in schools rated F in 2012, 29% in D schools, 11% in C schools, 14% in B schools and none in A schools, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal. Among the open seats were ungraded schools that previously had D and F ratings but recently changed operators.

Complicating results in the education marketplace, some families haven’t used their choices as expected: Nearly 35% of the approximately 6,700 students applying to transfer or enroll at a public school for the fall semester selected either D- or F-graded schools as their first pick, the Journal found.

For New Orleans parents, the school-choice system adds a level of involvement well beyond getting children dressed, fed and out the door in time. In applying for a new school, many families take into account such factors as the distance from home and work, where siblings are enrolled, the availability of after-school care and campus safety, in addition to academic ratings.

Jennifer Nin’s 8-year-old son has already attended three schools, looking for the best educational fit. He now attends Akili Academy of New Orleans, where, Ms. Nin said, he is “thriving and loving it” after two years at less-than-desirable schools.

“I like knowing that I have the freedom to decide where my son goes to school,” Ms. Nin said. “It gives me the power to pick something better for him.”

Parents are empowered to vote with their feet, though it can be a slow and rocky path, with thousands of children spending a year or more at F schools.

Nika Burns this spring decided to keep her two sons at a school that carried an F grade last school year, even though there were higher-rated schools closer to home. Her children objected to a move, she said, because “they feel loved and nurtured and cared for” at William J. Fischer Accelerated Academy. She also worried about the boys keeping up academically at another campus.

Ms. Burns’ daughter, on the other hand, was accepted at a B-graded high school. “It’s not just about pulling kids out of F schools and moving them around,” she said. “You have to think about what’s best for the child.”

The application process is made more complicated because parents don’t know the number of open seats expected at schools each year. Parents earlier this year made selections not knowing, for example, that only three 3rd-grade seats were open at B-rated schools in the lottery for fall.

Luck also plays a role in the schools marketplace. Student applications are randomly assigned a number that helps determine admissions in rank order.

None of New Orleans’ eight A-rated schools—all charter schools under the control of the local school board—participated in the citywide lottery. The board voted last year to force the charters into participating when their licenses come up for renewal, which for some is as long as a decade away.

Aesha Rasheed, a community activist who created a popular school guide explaining admission requirements, said that after Katrina, parents were “put in charge of their children’s education and sent out to navigate a complex system where not all schools played fair.”

For Ms. Nelson, the quest began in February, at the annual Schools Expo held in the Superdome. Ms. Nelson, who lost her husband four years ago in a homicide, needed to find schools for two of her three children. “It’s so overwhelming,” she said, moving through the crowd past display tables.

Authorities were closing the school where her son Kaleb attended—the F-rated Benjamin E. Mays—for repeatedly failing to meet state testing goals. Ms. Nelson also needed a high school for her daughter, Kaylan, who was entering ninth grade. Her youngest son was in preschool.

The pressure triggered nightmares, Ms. Nelson said, of her daughter landing at a violent school and her son stuck in the principal’s office for hyperactivity. Ms. Nelson moved Kaleb to the Mays charter school three years ago, she said, because his kinetic nature didn’t mesh with his previous charter school’s strict discipline.

Kaleb, who earned A’s in second grade at Mays, said teachers there let him take short “brain breaks,” to play basketball or help in the principal’s office, when he got antsy.

Ms. Nelson applied to five schools for Kaleb and three for Kaylan. The citywide application allows for as many as eight schools per student. New Orleans parents apply to three, on average. Ms. Nelson said she selected only the schools she wanted.

Of the 21 public high schools in the lottery, just six were rated above D. Kaylan Nelson applied to one B-rated high school and one C-rated, competing with more than 1,400 eighth-graders for 150 open 9th-grade seats at the two campuses.

For Kaleb, Ms. Nelson selected Benjamin Franklin Elementary Math and Science, a B-rated school. But the choice was doomed from the start. Though Ms. Nelson didn’t know it, Franklin had no openings for 3rd-grade. Her other four choices were a C-rated charter and three private schools.

In May, Kaleb was assigned to his second choice, Upperroom Bible Church Academy, a private school. Ms. Nelson said she liked the school when her daughter had briefly attended before Katrina. But just 21% of voucher students passed state exams last school year at Upperroom.

Later in May, Ms. Nelson was notified that Upperroom was barred from accepting new voucher students because of the school’s poor exam results. In July, Kaleb was in the next round of the lottery and Ms. Nelson selected Akili Academy, a C-rated charter school that officials said had openings in third grade.

Ms. Nelson learned in July, a month before school started, that her son was admitted. After his first day, Kaleb’s teacher phoned Ms. Nelson to say the boy was smart and attentive. “I nearly cried with relief,” she said.

Initially, Ms. Nelson’s daughter didn’t get into either school she had selected in the lottery. In spring, Ms. Nelson made several visits to McDonogh 35 High School, a storied campus that was the first public high school in Louisiana for African Americans, pushing school officials to enroll her daughter. It holds a C grade. In July, she learned a slot opened for her daughter.

State officials say they are working to bring better order to the marketplace, opening “family resource centers” to help parents navigate the choice system, for example. Mr. White initiated the citywide lottery system two years ago.

This year, for the first time, the lottery incorporated private schools that accept state vouchers. A few high-rated public schools run by the local board also participated for the first time but dropped out after the first round, returning to a selection process controlled by individual principals. School board officials said those schools would return to the lottery next year.

Kathy Riedlinger, chief executive of the Lusher Charter School—which is under local board authority—said the campus doesn’t participate in the lottery because the centralized admissions system usurps school autonomy. Lusher, located a few blocks from Tulane and Loyola universities on the east bank of the Mississippi River, has the highest ranked K-12 program in the state.

On a school day last semester, a class of third-graders stroked violins and cellos as their music teacher led them on a baby grand piano. They were in a new $2 million arts wing, named for the Bill Goldring family, whose foundation donated $500,000 to help build the center. Mr. Goldring is chairman of the Sazerac Co., one of the largest distilling companies in the U.S.

School officials say its success comes from an active parents group, a veteran teaching staff and a rich curriculum. Its demographics are also unique: Citywide, 88% of students are African-American and 83% are low-income; a third of Lusher’s students are black, and a fifth are low-income.

Lusher gives admissions priority to children who live in the neighborhood, have siblings at the school or have a parent who works at Tulane.

Other students, including those from outside the neighborhood, must take an admissions exam and enter a campus lottery for the remaining seats. This year, 1,336 of these students applied for 152 open seats, officials said.

Many parents have complained they have little chance to enroll their children in Lusher or other A-rated schools. They say the schools erect barriers in what is supposed to be an open marketplace.

Ms. Riedlinger said her school’s selection process was fair and that it was “a major distraction to keep fighting over who gets into Lusher. The question should be: Why can’t we create more like Lusher.”

Write to Stephanie Banchero at stephanie.banchero@wsj.com

Education Failure in Philadelphia

September 26, 2013

Only 40% of students can read to standard. Union says so what?

  • The Wall Street Journal
  • REVIEW & OUTLOOK
  • September 24, 2013, 7:22 p.m. ET

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has extended a lifeline to Philadelphia’s hemorrhaging schools attached to a requirement for modest education and fiscal reforms. No thanks, says the teachers union. Herewith a parable of education decline.

Philadelphia’s schools are a textbook case of chronic, systemic failure. Woeful finances and academics compelled the state in 2001 to install a five-member School Reform Commission. Test scores have improved but are still pitiful. Last year only about 40% of students scored proficient or above in reading on the state standardized test, but 99.5% of teachers are rated satisfactory.

The commission’s greatest contribution has been to provide an escape valve for students. Enrollment at charters has grown to about 56,000 from 12,000 in 2000. The number of students attending traditional schools has shrunk by 25%, but those schools haven’t downsized as they’ve lost students.

Charters are paid roughly three-quarters as much on a per pupil basis as traditional schools. Yet savings from the charter expansion haven’t offset the increasing overhead and labor costs at traditional schools where the average teacher earns $110,000 in pay and benefits.

Teachers also don’t pay a cent for health benefits and can retire with a pension equal to 80% of their final salary after 30 years. As a bonus, the district pays the union $4,353 per member each year to administer dental, vision and retiree benefits. Its health and welfare fund had a $71 million surplus, according to its latest available tax filing in 2011.

The district last year had to borrow $300 million, and this summer two dozen schools were closed and 3,000 employees laid off (including about 600 teachers) to bridge another $300 million deficit. While the union blames state budget cuts, pay and benefit increases resulting from its last collective-bargaining agreement accounted for half the budget hole.

Mr. Corbett is offering the district a one-time $45 million grant and $120 million in recurring funds from a one-percentage-point city sales tax increase on the condition that teachers accept lower pay and benefits as well as “work rule” changes. The district wants to cut base salaries by 5% to 13% to offset the rising cost of pensions and for teachers to contribute to their health benefits. Yet the major sticking points are Mr. Corbett’s school reforms that would eliminate teacher seniority rights and base future pay increases on more rigorous evaluations that include student learning.

Teachers have little reason to budge since their previous contract remains in effect and they continue to earn raises based on longevity. Thus the union will likely drag out the negotiations until after next fall’s election when they hope to elect a Democratic Governor and renegotiate a bailout without Mr. Corbett’s preconditions.

Meantime, union leaders will whipsaw the GOP Governor for increasing corporate tax credits for private school scholarships that benefit low-income students in failing schools and then for not caring about Philadelphia’s poor, black kids. The tragedy is that Mr. Corbett’s ideas will help those kids while the union is dooming most of them to lives of underachievement and poverty. Where are Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama when they really could help?

A version of this article appeared September 25, 2013, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Failure in Philadelphia.


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