New Orleans Is The Epicenter Of School Choice

Jan 20, 2016

Across the country next week, schools, families and advocacy groups will host events to celebrate National School Choice Week. Most Southern states allow for some form of choice — magnet schools, vouchers for private schools, charter schools and more. How do these options affect learning, school demographics and student success?

The Southern Education Desk explores Matters of Choice — beginning in New Orleans, the choice epicenter.

It's a Wednesday morning at ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy, a pre-K through 8th grade charter school in New Orleans. Students gather for the school's weekly "value summit." They sit on the floor in the hallway, criss-cross apple sauce style. There's a pump up speech from the principal. Shout outs from students and teachers. Lots of snapping and reciting school values.

Jewel Hicks sends her five children here. She loves the school. The focus on arts. The general sense of warmth. But she had to shop around. Her two oldest kids started out a different charter school, with strong academics but strict rules. Students had to walk the halls in silence and straight lines.

"You know they weren't allowed to talk during lunchtime," Hicks says. "I know that there's a need for structure for your kids but they are children and they need to have a little bit of freedom."

She homeschooled for awhile, tried another school, then heard about ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy.

"It aligns with my values," she says. "So I love it."

This trial-and-error search for the right fit isn't uncommon in New Orleans. Because here, families actively choose schools. There are no more neighborhood schools. Students apply around the city through a central application, and a computer algorithm makes matches.

Jeffrey Henig is a professor of political science and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. He says there are two main arguments for school choice. The first "is simply to give families options. Having more variety and more options so parents can find a placement that's right for their child's particular interests and learning styles."

And so their child isn't stuck at a low-performing, under-resourced school. It's that phrase you hear a lot from school choice advocates: your ZIP code shouldn't determine your destiny.

Henig says there's another, more ideological argument. Traditional schools will get better. "Introducing choice will make schools compete to attract students," he says. "And that by making schools compete to attract students, schools will improve their level of performance."

But critics say choice can have the opposite effect. Henig calls it the spiral of decline. Charter and private schools attract high performing students with active, engaged parents and absorb public funds. That leaves traditional schools worse off, with the most vulnerable students and even fewer resources.

Deirdre Johnson Burel is executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network. "The argument against school choice is really about the power of the school as the nexus of community," she says. "That schools are really anchors to the community, and we should invest in quality schools in every neighborhood."

Johnson Burel says more choice doesn't necessarily mean more good options. In New Orleans, there are some high performing, high demand schools. But "we have a lot of schools that are in the middle," she says. "And so ultimately choice is optimally about having choice around high quality. And when there is a pool of mediocrity, what does that mean?"

Jeffrey Henig says the research on school choice shows mixed results. Some charter and private voucher schools are doing a great job. Some aren't. There isn't much evidence that school choice has boosted the traditional public school system.

"It's more complicated than either proponents or opponents say," says Henig. "It's not that choice is consistently and uniformly and universally better or worse."

Deirdre Johnson Burel would like to see a shift away from pro-choice, anti-choice debates.

"How do we lift the floor on what excellence looks like in schools? What's the capacity that's missing on why schools aren't able to deliver on a higher level? I think that's a more complex conversation," she says. "It's not a sexy sound bite. But it's the meat of the issue."

An issue more states and districts will engage with, as the school choice movement expands.

This report is supported with a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.