Seeking Clarity in Conflict

I got a lot of “Amens” for my post about New Orleans last week. For years I have been hearing from advocates, both inside and outside of the education reform movement, that the story of schools in New Orleans post-Katrina is far more complicated than either side cares to recognize. The ways in which race and class interact with schooling and systemic reform are some of the most technically complicated and emotionally freighted of all, which is why I purposefully decided to start there. I also got some pushback, which is not surprising.

I think Chris Stewart said it best in my interview with him last week: “I don’t put my kids in a school that’s ‘better than it used to be.’ These questions aren’t helping me as a parent. Is it a good school?”

Stewart’s question is the litmus test that so many parents with financial means use when choosing where to live. After all, real estate is the original school choice in this country. It seems, though, that we’ve settled on a different metric when talking about New Orleans, which is the extent to which the schools are better or worse than they were before Hurricane Katrina. Growth versus absolutes. Personally, I think they’re better, and the data tell that story. But the more parents and advocates I talk to, the more genuine anger I hear at the notion that “better” is somehow worth celebrating. I began to feel that anger myself, as I heard more and more reform success stories about New Orleans, which barely mentioned the fact that the story is far from over in that city, where the majority of the schools are still too weak to justify a victory lap. Not to mention that so many metrics that are important to communities in the city - like child poverty rates - haven't moved in the intervening years. 

In our interview, Stewart brought up the patience of politicians and philanthropists. I both share his concern and have hope.  Hope that the next decade of progress includes the critical voices folks who do not want to halt reform in New Orleans, but rather hope to improve upon the current approach by making it more inclusive. One of the most critical skills in public service is to be able to distinguish real constructive critique from professional noisemaking and rabble-rousing. The risk is that one confuses the two, and I do not want that to happen in New Orleans.

I will return to the New Orleans story, but in the meantime, I also will share stories from other cities. Some cities have chosen paths that are similar to the one in New Orleans, while others are taking a different approach, either out of preference or necessity. I’m going to do my best to share these stories not just through the eyes of leadership, but also through the lives of the families and communities who depend on a long-term, respectful commitment to change.