The Untidy Revolution - The Economist
November 8, 2007
LOS ANGELES AND NEW ORLEANS – OUTSIDE New York, as usual, it is a different story. Most American mayors look longingly at Michael Bloomberg's accomplishments and wish they were equally mighty. West of the Mississippi, none has succeeded in seizing control of a school system. Nor are they likely to be able to do so: the early 20th century progressive movement, strongest in the West, severely blunted their powers. “We haven't had reform from the top here,” says Eli Broad, a Los Angeles philanthropist. “So instead we're seeing change from the bottom up.”
In the vanguard are charter schools like the [KIPP] Academy of Opportunity in south-central Los Angeles. Here 13- and 14-year-olds, almost all of them black or Hispanic, firmly shake your hand and outline their plans to go to Yale and Stanford. They work long hours—from 7.30am to 5pm five days a week, plus four hours every other Saturday. The grind pays off. At the end of their first year in the school just 28% of pupils are proficient or advanced in maths, compared to 48% of pupils elsewhere in California. By the time they leave, three years later, they far outperform their peers.
Los Angeles has 125 charter schools, more than any other school district in America. That is partly a reflection of the dismal state of the mainstream public schools. Perhaps no city would find it easy to educate such a diverse group of children, many of them the offspring of immigrants from rural Mexico. In California, with its miserly education budget and stifling state bureaucracy, the task is almost impossible. For many parents in poor areas, charter schools represent the only hope for a decent education.
That became even clearer this week when another promising reform was stymied. Voters in Utah struck down a scheme, passed last year by the state legislature, which would have helped parents pay for their children to go to private schools. In principle, vouchers are popular: a YouGov poll for The Economist (see chart) finds 53% of people favouring them, with only 32% opposed. Yet voucher schemes have been defeated in every state where they have been on the ballot. Some fear harm to the public-school system, others an influx of poor children. If a universal voucher system cannot be introduced in America's most conservative state, it probably can't be anywhere.
As public schools, albeit independent ones, charters cannot deliver nearly such a strong competitive shock to the system. Yet they still introduce a welcome element of choice. Because they are not too controversial, they have been able to grow quickly: some 1.2m American pupils attend them, compared to fewer than 100,000 who receive vouchers. And they are beginning to affect other schools. In May a majority of tenured teachers in Locke High School, one of the worst in Los Angeles, expressed a desire to convert the school into a charter. It was an astonishing gesture, since (as the teachers' union quickly pointed out) they would lose some of their rights.
The drowned and the saved
Michael Kirst of Stanford University reckons about 15% of pupils in a district need to be going to charter schools before the system as a whole faces real pressure to change. That is not easily achieved, given a lack of appropriate buildings: the Academy of Opportunity has moved three times since it was founded in 2003. Yet the threshold has been reached in a few places, such as Washington, DC, and Dayton, Ohio. And it has been spectacularly exceeded in a city that is among the last one would associate with reform.
New Orleans's public schools have long been a shambles. Since the 1980s the middle class has fled them for the private sector, with the result that most of the system's 65,000 pupils came from poor, often single-parent, homes. A potent teachers' union combined with a meddling school board to frustrate reform. The system was startlingly corrupt: in June a former president of the board pleaded guilty to receiving some $140,000 in kickbacks.
Two years ago Hurricane Katrina swept away this sorry edifice. The state of Louisiana, which had seized control of some of the worst schools before Katrina, took over most of the district, leaving only the best-performing schools to the local board. Charter schools were approved in bunches, with an entire “charter district” created in the Algiers neighbourhood, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. As a result, New Orleans now has a higher proportion of pupils in charter schools than anywhere else in America.
So far, test results suggest that the charters are doing better than the competition. And there are other encouraging signs. Earlier this year the state brought in a new superintendent, Paul Vallas, who had helped turn around schools in Philadelphia and Chicago. The once-mighty teachers' union and school board have seen their influence wane. Still, fixing New Orleans's schools will be a daunting task. The system is in flux: more students are trickling back each month, swelling the school population from a low point of about one-third of pre-Katrina levels to about half today. And Karran Harper Royal, a trenchant critic of the public schools, points out that corruption may be even harder to root out when there are more than seven school-board members to keep tabs on.
In New Orleans, as in Los Angeles, a certain amount of chaos is to be expected. Some charter schools are bound to close. Five hundred and sixty others have done so around the country since 1992. Yet, while that will be painful for the children affected, it will be a good thing in the long run if it leads to better schools. Reforms carried out by a mayoral strongman are quicker and tidier. But most revolutions are messy.