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EDITORIAL: Public school reform bolsters post-Katrina New Orleans

Although much of the recent media coverage of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has reminded us of the incredible devastation caused by the storm, nothing was more important to rebuilding a stronger New Orleans than the overhaul of its corrupt and failing public schools.

In September 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded nearly 80 percent of New Orleans, permanently damaging much of city’s educational infrastructure and wiping out its tax base. As a result, the Orleans Parish School Board had to tell roughly 7,000 teachers and staff — many of whom had lost homes themselves — that they were out of a job.

As drastic a shift as this was, people weren’t too upset about it. Prior to the storm, the city’s school system was among the worst in the nation. The last full school year before the storm, a mere 56 percent of students in New Orleans graduated from high school, 10 points below the national average. And the majority of those who graduated tested below average in core subjects such as reading and math.

The school district was far more concerned with helping grown-ups. In 2003, the school system issued checks to 4,000 people who weren’t supposed to get them and provided health benefits to 2,000 people who weren’t eligible for them.

Post-Katrina, the School Board had no choice but to hand over four-fifths of the city’s public school system to a new, all-charter Recovery School District. Fast-forward 10 years, and things are much different — and much better — for students in New Orleans.

At of the beginning of the 2013 school year, 76.5 percent of New Orleans students were graduating on time. Not only was this figure equal to the national average, but the city’s black students were graduating at a rate 16.5 percentage points higher than their counterparts nationwide. According to a 2012 study by Tulane’s Cowen Institute, ACT scores among the city’s students had increased 1.2 points. The college entry rate among New Orleans public school students had gone up by 14 percentage points.

While some — mostly advocates of the old, failed system — have criticized the new, charter-driven system as being elitist and exclusive, its results speak for themselves. No system is perfect, but one thing is clear: Pouring more money into school systems without reforms that promote school choice will never change the culture of the entrenched status quo. The lessons of New Orleans education reforms — empowering parents with school choice and holding schools accountable for their performance — have (thankfully) been applied here in Nevada this year, and should be applied all over the country. Our children deserve it.

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