Archive for the ‘parental choice’ Category

Supreme Court Religious Bonus

July 3, 2017

The Justices extend their Blaine ruling to school vouchers.

A Christian women's activist group shows their support of the ruling in Washington, June 27.

A Christian women’s activist group shows their support of the ruling in Washington, June 27. PHOTO: J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Good news: Monday’s Supreme Court ruling on religious liberty was even better than we thought. The Justices ruled 7-2 that a church could not be banned from a public benefit program merely because it is a church. On Tuesday the Justices extended that principle by overturning a ruling that struck down Colorado’s school voucher program on religious grounds.

In 2011, Colorado’s Douglas County adopted a Choice Scholarship Program to let 500 students attend a local private school. But groups including the American Civil Liberties Union sued. The Colorado Supreme Court killed the program citing the state’s version of the Blaine Amendment, one of many state anti-Catholic laws from the 1800s to prevent public money from funding religious schools ( Doyle v. Taxpayers for Public Education).

The Douglas County School District and the Institute for Justice, which represents three families in Colorado, appealed to the Supreme Court in 2015, but the Justices held the petition pending the resolution of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer on Monday. On Tuesday the Court vacated and remanded Doyle to the lower court for reconsideration in keeping with Trinity Lutheran’s holding that Missouri’s application of the Blaine Amendment violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

The High Court typically vacates and remands only when the Justices think there is a “reasonable probability” that the lower court got it wrong. Colorado’s do-over is a warning to other states that might use Blaine Amendments to derail school choice programs that threaten teachers unions and the public school monopoly.

The win comes at a good time for school choice advocates who have been building momentum in the states. In May three families successfully challenged a Montana rule that prevented a voucher program from being used at religious schools. On Monday the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously upheld a program of tax credits for scholarships to some 13,000 students to attend private schools.

School choice is spreading because parents want the chance to get their child a better education than they receive in local public schools. Sometimes that enhanced opportunity is offered by religious schools, and the First Amendment does not allow the state to discriminate on the basis of religion.

Judicial liberals have interpreted Monday’s Trinity Lutheran ruling as applying only to school playgrounds. But in his concurrence Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the Court’s playground decision should be understood broadly because jurisprudence must be governed by general principles. “The general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise,” he wrote, “whether on the playground or anywhere else.”

Appeared in the June 28, 2017, print edition.

Los Angeles Charter Uprising

May 22, 2017

Voters elect a pro-reform majority on the local school board.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

One reason public schools in big cities are so lousy is union control of local school boards. This has long been true in Los Angeles, but last week charter-school advocates dealt a major blow to the failing status quo by winning a majority on the district’s Board of Education.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has some of the country’s lowest-performing public schools. In 2015 only one in five fourth-graders rated proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While Los Angeles boasts more charter schools than any district in the country, they still account for merely 16% of enrollment. Two years ago the Great Public Schools Now initiative, which is backed by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, set a goal of enrolling 50% of the district’s students in charters. The unions naturally went nuts.

As union schools lose students (and thus taxpayer funds) to charters, the school board has become even more reactionary. Last month the board voted to support three bills before the state legislature in Sacramento that aim to limit autonomy for charter schools. One would prevent charters from appealing rejections by local school boards to county and state boards. The appeals process is one reason charters in Los Angeles have been able to expand despite school-board resistance.

Anti-charter board members have tried to convince parents that rising graduation rates show that traditional public schools are improving. But the real explanation is that the board dumbed down graduation requirements and allowed students to pass courses with a D grade. Half of last year’s graduating seniors were ineligible for state public universities, according to the education nonprofit The 74.

School board president Steve Zimmer, who was ousted last week, declared that “teachers are not failing. Students are not failing. Schools are not failing.” Parents who voted in the local elections believe otherwise.

Unions tried to vilify pro-charter candidates Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez by portraying them as tools of Donald Trump, though both were endorsed by President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the state’s progressive former Senator Barbara Boxer. There’s nothing progressive about failing low-income minority kids.

Appeared in the May. 22, 2017, print edition.

Trump’s School-Choice Fight

September 19, 2016

His plan to let money follow the child is a moral and political winner.

 

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sept. 17.ENLARGE
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sept. 17. PHOTO: REUTERS

If Donald Trump knew that promoting school choice would cause such a ruckus on the left, maybe he’d have weighed in sooner. The Republican nominee has found a winning issue by pitching a plan to “provide school choice to every disadvantaged student in America.” Amen.

During a visit to the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, Mr. Trump proposed a $20 billion block grant for states by redirecting federal education money to support charter schools and vouchers. He also endorsed merit pay for teachers and said he’d support local candidates who champion school choice.

Most of the $50 billion or so that the federal government spends on K-12 education is targeted to particular programs like teacher training, and rural and STEM education. About $14 billion in Title I funds are earmarked for disadvantaged students. However, this money doesn’t follow kids to private schools, and states often shortchange charter schools.

Mr. Trump wants to let states use federal funds to boost voucher awards, so parents rather than governments get to choose where the money goes. As he noted in Cleveland, “there is no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly.” Judging by the panicky reaction on the left, you’d think he’d proposed eliminating public education.

Hillary Clinton said his block-grant plan would “decimate public schools across America.” Yet $20 billion is merely 3% of what states spend on K-12 education each year and less than the increase in school spending in California since 2012. By the way, charters are public schools—freed of union control.

Mrs. Clinton is showing how far left she has moved on education. President Obama has been hostile to vouchers; recall former Attorney General Eric Holder’s efforts to shut down Louisiana’s voucher program that principally benefits poor black kids. But at least Mr. Obama supported charters, while Mrs. Clinton is now openly hostile to these reform public schools.

Unions and their friends are trying to deflect attention from Mr. Trump’s speech and minority outreach by saying the charter school where he announced his plan received a failing grade on Ohio’s school-progress report card last year. But the charter flunked due to a switch in state tests last year that caused student scores to slump nearly everywhere in the state.

In 2014 about 71% of third graders at Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy were proficient in reading. On the new test 55% rated as proficient. Yet the share of students at Cleveland Arts who scored proficient was still more than twice as high as at Harvey Rice Elementary (which has a similar demographic makeup) down the block. That school got an A on student growth.

It’s ironic that progressives are howling about the charter’s performance on standardized tests, which they usually insist are a poor indicator of school and teacher quality. Why is it that the only schools that unions believe should be held accountable for student performance are those run by their competition? That’s a question Mr. Trump should ask from here to November.

Poor Children Need a New Brown v. Board of Education

August 29, 2016

Students deserve federal protection from the twisted logic of tenure rules that undermine learning.

By THEODORE J. BOUTROUS JR. and JOSHUA S. LIPSHUTZ
Aug. 28, 2016 5:50 p.m. ET
285 COMMENTS
The California Supreme Court announced Aug. 22 that it would not hear Vergara v. California, a landmark case fighting for the educational rights of public-school students. The court’s unwillingness even to consider an issue that Justice Goodwin Liu called “one of the most consequential to the future of California” demonstrates why the federal courts must intervene and recognize that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a fundamental right to education.

Julia Macias, 13, a plaintiff in Vergara v. California, in Los Angeles, June 10. ENLARGE
Julia Macias, 13, a plaintiff in Vergara v. California, in Los Angeles, June 10. PHOTO: NANCY PASTOR/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In Vergara, nine students challenged teacher-tenure and dismissal laws that make it nearly impossible for school districts to remove grossly ineffective teachers from the classroom. We were part of the team, along with our partner former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who represented the student plaintiffs. After an eight-week bench trial in 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down the statutes under the state constitution because their twisted logic is “unfathomable” and they inflict harm so severe that it “shocks the conscience.”

Judge Treu’s decision attracted national attention. Then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared that the decision “presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.”

The state of California and California’s two largest teachers unions appealed. In its decision, the California Court of Appeal acknowledged that the laws are a “problem,” agreed that they likely lead to “grossly ineffective teachers being in the educational system,” and described the situation as “deplorable.” The court sided with the unions anyway.

The case seemed destined for the California Supreme Court, but on Aug. 22 the court declined to hear the case by a vote of 4-3. Pursuant to its ordinary procedures, the court did not explain why. Yet two justices took the extraordinary step of issuing dissenting opinions decrying the majority’s failure to act. Justice Liu wrote that “[t]he nine schoolchildren who brought this action, along with the millions of children whose educational opportunities are affected every day by the challenged statutes, deserve to have their claims heard by this state’s highest court.” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar described the laws as “staggering failures that threaten to turn the right to education for California schoolchildren into an empty promise.”
California’s refusal to protect its young citizens has made federal protection essential. Public education meets the U.S. Supreme Court’s fundamental-right test, as articulated in Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), because it is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Laws that impair that right should be subject to strict scrutiny under the Constitution’s due-process and equal-protection clauses.

Public education has been a fundamental pillar of U.S. society since the nation’s founding, when the Continental Congress set aside public lands “to support a system of schools in a state.” As the Supreme Court put it in 1954’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling: “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education.”

Two decades after Brown, the Supreme Court in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) held that education is not a fundamental right in the context of school funding. But it expressly left open the possibility that a right to education might be recognized in another situation. In Papasan v. Allain (1986), the court made clear that whether education is a fundamental right is “not yet definitively settled.”

Such a right would not be an open invitation for federal courts to manage schools or for litigants to bring every education policy question to federal court. Rather, it would protect children across the country against state laws and policies that actively and knowingly deprive them of essential educational opportunities and create egregious inequality, like the California statutes in Vergara.

The day after the denial of review in Vergara, we filed a case in Connecticut federal court, Martinez v. Malloy. We argue for a federal constitutional right to challenge laws that force inner-city children to attend schools that the state knows are failing to provide a minimally acceptable education. These laws are especially cruel because Connecticut has some terrific public schools, including in urban centers.

Magnet schools and public charter schools achieve outstanding results for students. Yet Connecticut has defied reason and imposed a moratorium on magnet schools and an effective cap on charter schools. The state also punishes high-quality public schools that accept transfer students from failing schools. Inner-city kids have to win a lottery to gain access to decent schools.

In Brown, the Supreme Court described education as the “very foundation of good citizenship,” and proclaimed that the “opportunity of an education . . . is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” The federal courts should transform these powerful words into a reality and enforce the fundamental right of children to education in this country.

Messrs. Boutrous and Lipshutz, partners at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, are counsel for the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California and Martinez v. Malloy, and for Students Matter, the nonprofit sponsor of both lawsuits.

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.

Survey: Black Voters Support Parental Choice In Education

October 14, 2013

Sometimes it takes a little while for stories to find their way to us. Such is the case today.

Back in July, Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) released a report “A Survey Report on Education Reform, Charter Schools, and the Desire for Parental Choice in the Black Community.”

Among the findings was this tidbit:

Parental choice in education as a fundamental concept deeply resonated with Black voters who completed the BAEO survey. Between 85-89% in each state agreed that government should provide parents with as many choices as possible to ensure that their children receive a good education.

Parental choice in education knows no limitations. Only the usual suspects oppose parental choice, those who steadfastly oppose reform every time it’s mentioned. In a case such as this, where basically 85 to 90 percent of those surveyed say they support parental choice, we should not relent in pressing our message of freedom and education to anyone with willing ears.

WSJ: Vouchers Can Help Kids and Big-City Politicians

October 8, 2013

The Wall Street Journal has yet another great op-ed about Education Reform.

Politicians in cash-strapped municipalities can give families choice while saving money.

By Kevin P. Chavous

In his former post as White House chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel famously remarked: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” What he said next is less remembered: “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

These words come to mind as municipal governments across the country—from Stockton, Calif., to Jefferson County, Ala., to Mr. Emanuel’s own city—grapple with massively underfunded public pensions, lowered bond ratings, and the prospect of layoffs for thousands of teachers and other public employees. These crises are opportunities for leaders to do things they could not do before.

I see this most clearly in public education. As a former chairman of the education committee on the District of Columbia City Council, I’ve experienced firsthand the tensions between paying bills racked up in the past and honoring the obligations we have to young students in the present and future. It is deeply unfair to settle adult disputes over pension obligations and fiscal mismanagement on the backs of school children who weren’t even alive when the problems were created. In D.C., we chose to put our children first. Other cities can do the same.

How? By unleashing parental choice in education. While public-school systems take the painful steps necessary to remain solvent, public dollars can and should follow students to less costly and higher-performing private schools and public-charter schools.

The word “voucher” is a dirty word to many teachers and administrators in public schools, but it shouldn’t be. With a well-run parental-choice program, elected officials and administrators can significantly reduce the stress on public-school budgets while living up to their obligation to provide great educational opportunities for young people.

In 2004, when I headed the D.C. City Council education committee, we secured federal funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to low-income students for tuition at private schools that outperformed public schools. We also secured funding to improve the city’s charter and traditional public schools. Between 2004 and 2012, the program received more than 11,000 applications and awarded 4,900 scholarships.

In June 2012, after the Obama administration nearly phased the program out, House Speaker John Boehner and then Sen. Joseph Lieberman reached an agreement with the Education Department to renew the scholarships. As Mr. Boehner said at the time: “Thousands of families have taken advantage of this scholarship program to give their children an opportunity to succeed in life, and there’s strong evidence that it’s both effective and cost-effective.”

In the 2011-12 school year, D.C. students who used the scholarship program to attend private schools had a high-school graduation rate of more than 90%. The city’s charter schools had a graduation rate of 77%, far above the traditional public-school graduation rate of 56%.

Other elected officials across the country are making similar choices. Last year, in the midst of a budget crisis, Louisiana lawmakers expanded the Louisiana Scholarship Program. Begun in New Orleans in 2008, the program provides low-income parents whose children are assigned to a failing school the opportunity to send them to a private school.

This school year, some 8,000 students statewide—91% of them minority—are using vouchers to attend private schools. A survey conducted in February by the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Louisiana Federation for Children reported that 93.6% of parents were satisfied with their child’s academic progress in the voucher program. The new statewide program includes strong accountability measurements in order to remove schools that do not increase student proficiency.

According to the Louisiana Department of Education, the program is also saving the state’s taxpayers an estimated $16 million a year. The average scholarship last year was about $5,000, while the average amount spent per public-school student was about $8,500.

Empowering communities and families requires leaders with the guts to step out of their political comfort zones. There will be no shortage of defenders of the status quo, teachers unions chief among them. But that’s no reason to let this crisis go to waste.

Mr. Chavous is executive counsel to the American Federation for Children, chairman of Democrats for Education Reform, and a board member of Educational Choice Illinois.

Last year, in the midst of a budget crisis, Louisiana lawmakers expanded the Louisiana Scholarship Program. Begun in New Orleans in 2008, the program provides low-income parents whose children are assigned to a failing school the opportunity to send them to a private school.

This school year, some 8,000 students statewide—91% of them minority—are using vouchers to attend private schools. A survey conducted in February by the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Louisiana Federation for Children reported that 93.6% of parents were satisfied with their child’s academic progress in the voucher program. The new statewide program includes strong accountability measurements in order to remove schools that do not increase student proficiency.

According to the Louisiana Department of Education, the program is also saving the state’s taxpayers an estimated $16 million a year. The average scholarship last year was about $5,000, while the average amount spent per public-school student was about $8,500.

Empowering communities and families requires leaders with the guts to step out of their political comfort zones. There will be no shortage of defenders of the status quo, teachers unions chief among them. But that’s no reason to let this crisis go to waste.

Mr. Chavous is executive counsel to the American Federation for Children, chairman of Democrats for Education Reform, and a board member of Educational Choice Illinois.

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

Republican Rx: Parental Choice in Education

November 27, 2012

This column appears at National Review Online:

Republican Rx: Parental Choice in Education
To reach Latino voters, the GOP needs to make it a paramount issue.

By  Lance T. Izumi

In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat, Republicans are scrambling to find a winning electoral formula. While the punditry class advises the GOP to cave in on immigration and social issues, the bigger and better opportunity for Republicans to increase their voter base and divide the Democrats would be to make parental choice in education a loud priority.

So much of the conventional wisdom dished out by Monday-morning-quarterbacking media grandees is wrong. Pandering to different demographic groups won’t open the voter floodgates for Republicans, because Democrats will always be willing to call the GOP’s bet and raise it. What Republicans need is an issue on which Democrats cannot outflank them and that will appeal to ordinary voters in populous Democratic strongholds. Parental choice in education fits that bill.

Democrats cannot outbid Republicans on parental choice because their paymasters, the teachers’ unions, won’t allow them. President Obama claims to support education reform but opposes full-blown choice options such as voucher programs. His reasons, such as believing that money is better spent on increasing public-school funding and that voucher-scholarship programs don’t improve student achievement, are easily rebutted, as the empirical evidence shows otherwise. More important, the groups that Republicans are trying to win over support wider parental-choice options.

The Washington, D.C., voucher-scholarship program, for example, has strong support among African-American parents in the nation’s capital. Among Latinos, the support for school-choice options is huge and exceeds that of the public in general. According to a May 2012 survey by the American Federation for Children and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (HCREO), an eye-opening 69 percent of Latino voters in five swing states supported vouchers, versus 57 percent of all voters.

“Unfortunately,” notes Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of HCREO, “a lot of our Latino families come from low-income areas [where] choice is the only way that they are going to be able to achieve that American dream of graduating high school and going on to make something of themselves.” While the Democrat-sponsored DREAM Act focuses on the illegal-immigrant slice of the Latino population, choice options such as vouchers to attend private schools are accessible to all segments of the Latino community. In other words, parental choice is the true dream act for all.

While most Democrats have abandoned their constituents on school choice, most Republicans have supported them. However, that support has often been quiet and low-key.

Mitt Romney supported parental-choice options such as vouchers, but his comments on the issue were limited and didn’t form the backbone of his appeal to Latino and other minority voters. That strategy must change immediately.

Latino voters are more likely than most to say education is a leading issue for them. Yet, says Mr. Fuentes, “The immigration debate from a national level has taken the spotlight, and this educational crisis that we find ourselves in, especially within our Hispanic community, just seems to never be discussed.” Republicans have to show that they care deeply about this critical issue, and there’s no better way to demonstrate that they care than by championing popular and beneficial parental-choice programs.

So here is what Republican leaders and candidates can do: become megaphones for parents and parental choice; immerse yourselves in communities and do the hard work of building choice-based coalitions; participate very publicly in grassroots demonstrations such as National School Choice Week; learn from Republican heroes such as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who pushed through landmark choice legislation; and promise not to play it safe, play by conventional rules, or cede the playing field to the other side.

By making parental choice a paramount issue, Republicans don’t have to sell out their principles of freedom and liberty — they just have to amp up the zeal of their belief.

— Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.