Posts Tagged ‘School Choice’

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.

Aug. 28, 2016 5:50 p.m. ET
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.

The Education Gangs of Los Angeles

September 14, 2015


Meet the decorated former Green Beret

who is rallying Los Angeles parents to fight

the unions and reform the worst public schools,

one school at a time.


Anaheim, Calif.

When most people think of this quintessential California suburb, the Angels baseball team or Disneyland probably comes to mind. But a five-minute drive from the “happiest place on earth” takes you to Palm Lane Elementary, ground zero in a fight between teachers unions and parents who are trying to fix California’s broken public schools. The conflict—as so often in American education—boils down to unionized teachers trying to stop minority children from attending charter schools.

Ninety percent of Palm Lane students come from low-income families. About 85% are Latino, and more than half aren’t native English speakers. Palm Lane has been on the California Education Department’s list of underperforming schools since 2003. In 2013 a mere 38% of students scored proficient or better in English on state tests. And Palm Lane is hardly an exception in the area: Four other elementary schools in Anaheim rank even lower on the state’s Academic Performance Index.

But Alfonso Flores is leading a grass-roots insurgency against the union-controlled regime at Palm Lane. The former teacher and father of four kids who attend public schools in Hesperia has used the state’s “parent trigger” law, passed in 2010, to force changes at a half-dozen schools in California. The law stipulates that if a majority of parents at a struggling school sign a petition, they can compel changes in school management or personnel. Sometimes, the parents contract with a charter-school operator. In one case, they hired a new principal. Parents have also used the law as a negotiating tool to force the district to make improvements like adding more staff.

As the new school year was getting started, Mr. Flores sat down with me in the park next to Park Lane that has served as a meeting place and training ground for parents in the trigger campaign. The 45-year-old decorated Gulf War veteran has plenty of stories to tell about doing battle with teachers unions that bring heavy artillery to every fight.

“It’s grass-roots,” he says of parent-trigger efforts, “and that’s what scares the teachers unions.”

Mr. Flores, a self-described “anchor baby” of Mexican immigrants, knows firsthand the value of escaping bad schools. As a child in the 1970s, he spent three hours daily on a bus trekking to and from a school in the San Fernando Valley under the Los Angeles Unified School District’s desegregation plan. Busing to achieve racial integration is hardly optimal, but Mr. Flores says it did allow him to avoid the horrendous schools in the Los Angeles inner city.

As a senior in high school, he signed up with the U.S. Army and after graduating served tours in Colombia, the Persian Gulf and Somalia. “I wanted a way to thank my country for allowing my parents to bring me to this great nation,” he explains. In 10 years the Green Beret earned a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts, and he lost a kidney after being wounded in the 1993 rescue mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, that was depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down.”

During his military service, Mr. Flores says, he was struck by his fellow soldiers’ deficient educations. They had to “redo grammar school” because they “couldn’t write a simple report,” he recalls. “The Pentagon has complained about high-school kids not able to pass the ASVAB”—the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

After an honorable discharge in 1998, he got his teaching credential from California State University at Dominguez Hills. His first teaching job was at Normandie Avenue, one of the worst elementary schools in L.A. One teacher, Mr. Flores recalls, would watch television while students filled in coloring sheets. A new principal tried to raise standards, he says, but if she entered a classroom without the teacher’s permission, she would get slapped with a union grievance.

In 2007, after being named a district teacher of the year, Mr. Flores was hired as the founding principal of the Global Education Academy, a charter school in South Los Angeles with an almost entirely black and Latino student population. Although most teachers were young and inexperienced, the charter far outperformed neighboring public schools. In 2008, 88% of its students scored proficient or advanced in math, compared with 37% districtwide.

The key to improving student performance, Mr. Flores says, was engaging parents. At most public schools, “parents are treated with hostility,” but at charters, administrators and teachers tend to “embrace parents as partners.” Teachers unions and their liberal allies blame poverty for bad schools, but Mr. Flores calls that an insult to good teachers who are helping poor children succeed: “Poverty is not an issue.”

In 2011 Mr. Flores joined the nonprofit Parent Revolution, inspired by the group’s role in California’s first parent-trigger campaign, at McKinley Elementary in Compton. McKinley parents wanted a high-performing charter operator to take over the failing school but were stymied by the teachers union, which had joined forces with the school district.

The union tactics at McKinley included requiring parents to show up at the school during the workday with a photo ID—a good way to scare off illegal immigrants—to verify their signatures. The trigger petition failed after a lengthy court battle, but Mr. Flores says the injustice propelled him to enlist as a parent organizer. “Before you begin a petition drive, you have to start a parent organization,” Mr. Flores says. Parents “have to be aware of how the system works and how the system is broken.”

For instance, “parents are unaware that principals don’t have power to dismiss or even hire their own staff. Districts do a really good job of keeping parents away from all of this information,” Mr. Flores notes. “Once they learn, it agitates them even more.”

But the biggest challenge is collecting signatures while being barraged by the unions. In every petition campaign, he says, “they use the same accusations and playbook.” Two standbys are false charges that the petition organizers are bribing parents to sign and that the people gathering the signatures are paid by outside groups.

The unions hit the “outsider” label hard, Mr. Flores says, alleging that petition organizers “have a political agenda—that we’re trying to privatize education.” Another union tactic: Overplay the collateral damage, telling parents that a petition could force the school to close. When all else fails, the unions try to junk the petition signatures. In the parent-trigger drive Mr. Flores helped organize at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto in 2012, the school board invalidated nearly 100 signatures. But a state judge ordered the district to accept the petition and allow the charter conversion.

Compared with fighting unions, Mr. Flores’s encounters with local gang leaders have been a relative breeze.

“In every campaign I’ve been a part of, you have situations where you have to respect the community,” Mr. Flores says. “That means if the local community leader is a minister, you meet with the minister. In Watts, it was a gang leader.” That was three years ago, he says, when Latino parents at Weigand Avenue Elementary were seeking to oust the principal. A black pastor said he had to get permission from a local gang to mobilize parents, and he set up a meeting at the gang leader’s apartment.

“There were all types of weapons throughout the house. I remember opening the door and that distinctive smell of marijuana,” Mr. Flores recalls. “I was afraid because I was aware of the turf battles—the fact that I was Latino and they were African-American.”

But the only triggers that came up in the meeting were of the parental variety. To Mr. Flores’s amazement, the gang members supported the Weigand Avenue takeover. One, he says, “happened to be a former student at the school and said, ‘You need to do this for the future generation of kids, because I am a product of this school.’ He was very self-aware.” While parents gathered signatures, Mr. Flores says, the gang “would egg us on and tell us they were sending parents our way.”

The petition at Weigand succeeded, but Mr. Flores says he grew frustrated by what he perceived as an inefficient use of resources at Parent Revolution. In 2014 he left to launch his own school-reform outfit, Excellent Educational Solutions.

Later that year, he got a call from Gloria Romero—the former Democratic state Senate majority leader, who co-authored the parent-trigger law—about organizing a campaign at Palm Lane in Anaheim.

Palm Lane had cycled through five principals in three years. Mr. Flores says the catalyst for the petition drive at the school was the removal of a principal who had “started making teachers accountable” by taking steps like requiring them to assign homework. Teachers howled, and soon the school board reassigned the principal—to work as a teacher at another school.

Parents went public with their outrage. Ms. Romero proposed that Mr. Flores help mobilize them for a petition drive. When presented with various trigger options, parents chose to go for a charter-school conversion.

Mr. Flores used the park outside the school for daily parent meetings. Some mornings, he says, “we had to be out here at 6:30” to catch parents before they went to work. With a three-member team and $60,000 budget, Mr. Flores gave parents a tutorial in public-school dysfunction.

“Parents don’t know about API”—the state’s Academic Performance Index—“but they know when their kids don’t have homework, it is an issue,” he says.

Once again, the union pulled out its playbook. Signature gatherers were accused of bribing parents with iPads. The Anaheim City School District superintendent wrote a letter warning parents: “It has been reported to us that there are people in our community who have been paid by an organization to gather parent signatures for a petition that could completely change the way some of our schools are run.”

The parents were unmoved. More than 60% signed the petition—but the district threw out 133 of the 488 signatures. The matter moved to the courts, and in July a state superior court judge reprimanded the district’s conduct as “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and unfair” and ordered the school board to accept the petition.

The school board has appealed and doubled the contract for its legal firm, to $678,000. The fight has garnered plenty of headlines in California, but state leaders like Gov. Jerry Brown and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson have been notably silent.

Mr. Flores notes that the Democrat-dominated legislature in Sacramento has made a point of spending big on schools with a high concentration of disadvantaged students, with little to show for it. “You could throw millions of dollars into these schools,” he says, “and if there is no accountability, you have the same situation.”

When it comes to education reform, Mr. Flores says, “parents shouldn’t be leading this, it should be the state.” But given the stakes, he adds, sounding a militant note, sometimes “you have to force change.”

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.

School Choice for Special-Needs Students

August 10, 2015

Other children like our son would benefit from having vouchers that increase their options.

The Wall Street Journal


My wife, Liz, and I have a 5-year-old son named Sam who, along with his little brother, Pete, is our pride and joy. Sam was diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorder at age 4. The symptoms of ASD vary but are characterized by social deficits and repetitive behavior. His doctor says he is high-functioning, which means that with the right schooling, therapies, teachers and family support Sam could be “mainstreamed” into a regular classroom with his peers in the future.

But getting from here to there is going to take enormous effort, and our local public school has already shown an unwillingness to help. Sam is old enough to attend kindergarten in the fall, but after reading his progress reports and listening to his therapists, Liz and I agreed he was not ready to tackle the added challenges of kindergarten. His language skills are still delayed and he has sensory and social issues that could use another year of work.

Our son was evaluated by the special-education personnel in our public-school district, and we were told he qualified to attend a general education pre-K class for part of the school day and receive therapy in the special-education classroom the other part of the time. We also got him into applied-behavior-analysis (ABA) therapy outside of the school system that was recommended to us by the pediatric neuropsychiatrist who diagnosed him.

So we asked for a meeting with local public-school officials to see if we could keep our son back a year. To our surprise, there were 11 school representatives at the 90-minute meeting, yet not one was qualified to render a decision. We wrote a follow-up letter expressing our disappointment and requested a second meeting.

The second meeting had even more people in attendance and lasted nearly two hours, at the end of which the school administrators said they could not grant Sam an extra year of preschool. Sadly, it was clear to us that pushing him through the system was more important to them than giving him a chance to perform at grade level.

At that point we had no choice but to enroll him in a private, faith-based school where he can repeat his pre-K year and continue an ABA program in the afternoon. We hope this will give Sam the support he needs. This school is aware of his condition and is willing to work with us and our son in conjunction with his ABA therapist to make sure he will be ready for kindergarten.

Thankfully, we could afford to send our son to a nearby private school. But in many families that isn’t an option. For the great majority of children with learning and physical disabilities, the best they can hope for is whatever their local public schools can provide. Too often what is provided is a subpar education that fails to meet the needs of this population. That’s not only unfair, it’s unjust.

That is why, when Americans discuss the need for school choice and vouchers, we should consider students with special needs like our son Sam. Society’s goal should be to give special-needs children their full measure of dignity and opportunity at a school where they can better learn, adapt and thrive. These schools exist, and vouchers can make them more affordable. The schools often are expensive—because it does take more to educate a child with disabilities. But these children, regardless of their parents’ income, deserve a quality education and a chance at life.

A few leaders have pushed back. Jeb Bush is one of them. When he became governor of Florida in the late 1990s he helped to create the state’s McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program. Founded in 1999, the statewide program provides “scholarships for eligible students with disabilities to attend an eligible public or private school of their choice.”

The program is still thriving long after Gov. Bush’s second term ended in 2007, and 28,370 students from 1,248 private schools participated in 2013-14. Students with disabilities ranging from blindness to dyslexia to autism-spectrum disorder received in total more than $180 million in scholarships.

That’s a model that if implemented in more states would help many thousands of kids like our son Sam, and many parents who can’t afford what is often most important in their child’s education: a choice.

Mr. Chiapelas lives in St. Louis.

Parent-Trigger V-Day

July 21, 2015

Alexander Hamilton said an independent judiciary is essential to guard against “serious oppressions of the minor party in the community.” Last week a California judge reaffirmed this wisdom by overruling local school district officials who tried to thwart parents from using the state’s parent-trigger law.

In January parents filed a petition to convert Palm Lane Elementary in Anaheim into a charter under California’s 2010 parent-trigger law, which allows a majority of parents in any failing school to force changes. Palm Lane had made the state Department of Education’s list of underperforming schools since 2003. Fewer than 40% of students scored proficient in English in 2013. About 85% are Hispanic, and most are low-income.

School district officials and the teachers union tried to stymie parents at every turn. The union even complained that signature gatherers were bribing parents with free iPads, a false allegation that the district superintendent repeated in a cautionary letter to parents. In February the school district rejected the petition on dubious grounds, which included claims that parents had made paperwork errors, such as failing to “submit a separate document that identifies the lead petitioners.”

Though more than 60% of parents signed the petition, the district threw out dozens of signatures that could not be “verified.” That is, the parents could not be reached between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to confirm that they signed the petition. Maybe that’s because they were working. This left parents 12 signatures short of the 50% threshold, so they sued the district for improperly rejecting the petition.

Last Thursday Orange County Superior Court judge Andrew Banks ruled in favor of the parents on all counts and rebuked the district’s conduct as “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and unfair.” He also scored district officials for violating their obligation under the trigger law to work in good faith with parents—a responsibility many other districts have disregarded as well.

Judge Banks has ordered the district to accept the petition and allow parents to immediately begin soliciting charter school proposals. Palm Lane will become the second school in California where parents have successfully triggered large-scale reform. There would be more if unions working with district officials hadn’t intimidated parent organizers.

Palm Lane parents were assisted by the trigger law’s author, former state Democratic Senator Gloria Romero, who helped seek outside legal counsel. The case shows how far the union and administrative bureaucracy will go to preserve their monopoly, even breaking the law. Palm Lane’s parents are heroes for fighting back, but the scandal is how hard they had to fight to fulfill a basic legal right.


All Arne’s Children

July 14, 2015

Arne Duncan has had his good moments supporting charter schools, but the Education Secretary continues to fight vouchers for private schools. So it’s worth noting that he has decided to send his own children to a private school in Chicago.

During his time in Washington, Mr. Duncan’s two children have been attending public schools in suburban Virginia. But his wife has now moved back to Chicago, and come fall their children will study at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools—which he attended and where tuition runs about $30,000 a year. That’s also where Barack and Michelle Obama sent their children before moving to Washington and sending Sasha and Malia to the tony Sidwell Friends.

Mr. Duncan’s choice is all the more striking since he used to run the Chicago public schools. He also stood aside in 2009 when Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin managed to kill the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington until Speaker John Boehner and the Republican Congress revived it.

The Education Secretary was also a muted voice when the Obama Justice Department filed a lawsuit aimed at scuttling Louisiana’s innovative voucher program. And he was silent again when the Colorado Supreme Court recently invoked a leftover of 19th-century bigotry—its anti-Catholic Blaine amendment—to stop students from receiving vouchers for private schools.

We wish Arne Duncan’s children every success. Too bad he didn’t fight for similar options for families not as fortunate as his.

Answer #2 The fixed cost argument

February 28, 2015

The fixed cost argument: School choice would lower the revenue to public schools. Since public schools have large fixed costs, school boards will have to raise taxes to cover these costs.

Every business has fixed costs. Managing and controlling fixed costs is part of making a business efficient. There is an easy place for public schools to “cut fat” and reduce their fixed costs: non-teaching overhead.

In 2007 Texas public schools spent only 41% of their operating expenses on teacher salaries. (TEA Snapshot 2012 Summary) I would expect that the non-teaching 59% of the budget could be trimmed somewhere.

That is one of the big benefits of school choice, it will force public schools to economize rather than raising taxes for more administrators and administrative buildings.

Answers to School Choice Objections

February 28, 2015

In the next series of posts, I will answer various “problems” with school choice that opponents raise.

1. The “creaming” argument: School choice will allow private schools to cream off the best students, “leaving behind” the poor students in the public schools. Vouchers don’t create ‘choice’ for parents and kids; they create ‘choice’ for private schools at taxpayers’ expense.

2. The fixed cost argument: School choice would lower the revenue to public schools. Since public schools have large fixed costs, school boards will have to raise taxes to cover these costs.

3. No schools will accept the vouchers: Elite private schools are very selective and a voucher would not cover tuition. Many private schools would refuse vouchers if state accountability tests or standards were required.

4. The fly-by-night schools argument: Due to the huge sums of tax money that would be newly available under school choice, fly-by-night schools would open, looking only to make a profit.

5. The First Amendment argument: Spending public tax dollars for religious schools violates Texas state and US federal constitutional separation of church and state.

6. The “No Research Shows Vouchers Work” argument: No credible research shows that school choice raises student achievement.

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

Justice Department vs. Louisiana Voucher Kids

September 25, 2013
  • OPINION The Wall Street Journal
  • September 23, 2013, 7:09 p.m. ET

Eric Holder hauls out a 40-year-old civil rights case to attack minority school choice.


School-choice programs have faced no shortage of legal challenges en route to their adoption in 18 states and the District of Columbia. But none of the challenges is so perverse or perplexing as the Justice Department’s motion last month to wield desegregation decrees to halt Louisiana’s voucher program.

As part of its efforts to boost educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, last year Louisiana enacted the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program. The statewide program provides tuition vouchers to children from families with incomes below 250% of the poverty line whose children otherwise would attend public schools that the state has graded C, D or F. This year, roughly 8,000 children are using vouchers to attend private schools. Among those, 91% are minority and 86% would have attended public schools with D or F grades.

Attorney General Eric Holder argues the program runs afoul of desegregation orders, which operate in 34 Louisiana school districts. By potentially altering the racial composition of those schools by taking minority children out of failing public schools, the Justice Department asserts the program “frustrates and impedes the desegregation process.” It has asked a federal court to forbid future scholarships in those districts until the state requests and receives approval in each of the 22 or more cases that might be affected.

If successful, the Justice Department’s motion could thwart school choice—not just vouchers, but charter schools—in hundreds of districts across the country that are still subject to desegregation decrees. And it would deprive thousands of Louisiana schoolchildren, nearly all of them black, of the only high-quality educational opportunities they have ever had.

Such a result would turn the desegregation decrees on their head, for it would inflict grave harm on the very children who are the decrees’ intended beneficiaries. Properly understood, desegregation and school choice share a common aim: educational opportunity.

In its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court made that paramount goal clear, recognizing “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

After facing massive resistance to Brown, the Supreme Court approved the limited use of racial ratios for student assignments not to achieve enduring racial balance, but as a starting point in desegregating schools. Since then, the court repeatedly has struck down rigid adherence to racial ratios and has insisted that control of schools must be returned to local authorities as soon as vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated.

But the Justice Department has been slow to cede control even in school districts that have become heavily minority, and districts are reluctant to relinquish federal funds that accompany desegregation decrees. Hence decrees remain in place many decades after the civil-rights abuses that gave rise to them.

Curiously, the Justice Department did not file its motion in any of the ongoing Louisiana desegregation cases. Instead, it seeks an injunction in Brumfield v. Dodd , a case filed nearly 40 years ago challenging a program that provided state funding for textbooks and transportation for private “segregation academies,” to which white students were fleeing to avoid integration. Since 1975, private schools have had to demonstrate that they do not discriminate in order to participate in that program.

The Louisiana Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program restricts participation to private schools that meet the Brumfield nondiscrimination requirements. The program further requires private schools to admit students on a random basis. Thus the program clearly complies with Brumfield. And the Brumfieldcourt has no jurisdiction over the desegregation decrees to which the Justice Department seeks to subject the voucher program.

Nor can any court properly force the state to seek advance approval from the Justice Department for a clearly nondiscriminatory program that advances the education of black children. As the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, when it struck down the “pre-clearance” formula of the 1965 Voting Rights Act regarding federal approval for electoral changes, states cannot be forced to submit their decisions to federal oversight “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

The Justice Department’s motion has tremendous human implications, personified by Mary Edler, whose grandsons are using vouchers to attend kindergarten and second grade in a Louisiana private school. All of the public schools in their district are graded C, D or F. Thanks to the scholarship program, Mrs. Edler says, “My grandsons are flourishing at Ascension of Our Lord in all aspects. They have small classes and an outstanding principal and staff.” She calls the tuition vouchers a “true blessing”—one that will be lost if the Justice Department prevails.

In its zeal, the Justice Department has transformed a bipartisan education reform program into a partisan opportunity. On Sept. 17, House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders wrote an open letter to Attorney General Holder, calling Justice’s motion “extremely troubling and paradoxical in nature,” given that it hurts the “very children you profess to be protecting.”

On Sept. 18, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was joined by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to denounce the Justice Department’s action. Mr. Jindal challenged administration officials “to come to Louisiana to meet face to face with these moms and dads and their kids and explain to them why [they] don’t think that these children deserve a great education.”

It won’t happen. Because for this Justice Department, desegregation long ago ceased to be about children or educational opportunities. It is about numbers and racial balance. If Justice succeeds in destroying Louisiana’s voucher program, the dreams and opportunities of countless children will perish with it.

Mr. Bolick is vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute and represents families and the Louisiana chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options defending the state’s voucher program.

A version of this article appeared September 24, 2013, on page A19 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Justice Department vs. Louisiana Voucher Kids.