Did you know New Orleans has no public school system? After Katrina hit in 2005, most of the infrastructure in the city’s failing public school system was destroyed and the city never rebuilt it. Instead, they adopted an entirely public charter system, first of its kind in the nation. The schools were turned over to non-profits overseen by the state. The city was effectively cut out of the process and the teachers were laid off. Families were able to choose which school they would send their kids to and the money followed the students there.
The results have been an overwhelming success. Before Katrina, 60% of students in New Orleans went to failing schools. Today that number is just 9%. The high school graduation rate increased by around 20% and is now only a couple points behind the statewide average, which is at a record high. The gap between students in New Orleans and other students in Louisiana has shrunk considerably. A black student in New Orleans scores higher on state exams than the average black student statewide. The system has been such a success that former Education Secretary Arne Duncan once said: “Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to education in the city.”
New Orleans represents an experiment in school choice and what happens when you introduce capitalism into education.
School choice is the idea where the money for their children’s education goes to the school of the parent’s choosing, not to a publically run school district. For example, instead of my hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire funding two public high schools, with the students going to the high school they live closest to, the students can choose which of several high schools they wish to go to, and the money for the student’s education follows them there. It was developed by Milton Friedman in the 1960s and has traditionally been associated with the free market right. However, it is popular even among Democrats and is extremely popular among Black Americans, Latino Americans, and millennials.
The problems with American education are well known. Among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), America ranks 20th in reading, 23rd in science, and 34th in math. We are below the OECD average in both science and math. Our reading scores are barely above the average. Something is very clearly not right.
The problem is not monetary either. In the fiscal year 2015, the US spent $650 billion on education between all government levels, which was larger than the often maligned military budget, giving lie to the notion America will always pay for war but never for education. On the federal level, spending on education has increased by 375% between 1970 and 2010, equaling a 117% increase per student. Test scores have not improved. In 2014, America spent about $12,300 per student, which was fourth among OECD countries and $2,700 above the average. Something is preventing the dollars from translating.
Some argue the problem is teacher pay. Democratic Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris recently rolled out a program designed to increase teacher pay by more than $13,000. But teacher pay isn’t really the problem. While teacher pay varies widely from state to state, the median salary for a high school teacher nationwide is around $59,000, above the average national income. A family with two high school teachers is in the top 25% of households nationwide.
American teacher pay also holds up well when compared to other nations. Among OECD countries, America is in the top 10 for average teacher salaries for primary, lower secondary, and upper secondary educators. The average salary of an American educator with 15 years of experience is in the top five among OECD countries at all levels. American educators are better paid than those in Finland and South Korea, nations with far superior educational outcomes. People might respond that American teachers make less money relative to their nation’s per capita GDP, but that’s not always true. Japanese teachers make less relative money than US teachers, and Japanese educational outcomes far exceed those in America.
The fact of the matter is that it is just really hard to perform statistical analysis across nations. You can’t say that other nations spend more, and therefore if American spent more on education or paid our teachers more, our education system would improve. More spending might generally increase educational outcomes, but when I see the data, it’s hard for me to buy that the problem with American education is monetary.
Does New Orleans present another way, a testament to the promise of school choice in education? Detractors doubt whether New Orlean’s reforms are responsible for the shift, whether the system is sustainable, and whether New Orleans can serve as a model for the rest of the country. These are legitimate concerns, but they are still only an incomplete takeaway from what has taken place in New Orleans.
The market works. Competition and choice drive down costs and increases quality. This is true in education the same way it is true in any other market. To back up the theory, we have years of data showing the success of school choice in improving educational outcomes, especially among low income and ethnic minority communities. Now with New Orleans, we have an example of what happens to failing school districts when they fully embrace school choice.