Two stories from the Washington Post today provide a perfect contrast to how states and Congress approach education reform. First, Jay Matthews reports from New Orleans:
The storm that swamped this city three years ago also effectively swept away a public school system with a dismal record and faint prospects of getting better. Before Hurricane Katrina, educator John Alford said, he toured schools and found “kids just watching movies” in classes where “low expectations were the norm.”
Now Alford is one of many new principals leading an unparalleled education experiment, with possible lessons for troubled urban schools in the District and elsewhere. New Orleans, in a post-Katrina flash, has become the first major city in which more than half of all public school students attend charter schools.
For these new schools with taxpayer funding and independent management, old rules and habits are out. No more standard hours, seniority, union contracts, shared curriculum or common textbooks. In are a crowd of newcomers — critics call them opportunists — seeking to lift standards and achievement. They compete for space, steal each other’s top teachers and wonder how it is all going to work.
In addition to a strong charter school movement, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) recently passed through a groundbreaking tax bill that creates a deduction for private school tuition. And now the state legislature is considering a bill that would provide vouchers for students in New Orleans.
Back in Washington, however, Democrats in Congress are moving in the opposite direction:
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said this week that she is working on a plan to phase out the controversial D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first in the country to provide federal money for vouchers. Norton said she wants to proceed in a way that will not harm recipients. But she added that she regarded the program, narrowly approved in 2004 for five years by the then-Republican majority, as on its last legs.
Parents of scholarship recipients offer high praise for the program, crediting it with changing the direction of their children’s lives. Patricia William, whose son Fransoir, 11, is a sixth-grader at Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in Northwest, said his growth has been striking. “He’s been developed in many ways, intellectually, emotionally and in his values,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Norton said she has warned fund officials that the program would be killed by Congress and that it was important to start telling families that the vouchers would not be continued indefinitely.
She also said she has in the past week met with families receiving scholarships and learned that many of them were unaware of the funding situation.
“They looked completely befuddled,” she said.