There is one question that can cut through the hyperbole of most education reform debates.
If a school provides a well-rounded, academically rigorous education that prepares children to live meaningful, successful lives — should this school be allowed to expand to serve more students?
The answer should be: “Yes.”
Yet for too many school systems, including some in New Jersey, the answer is: “No.”
In New Orleans, where I worked for the past eight years, we were led by one principle: let great schools thrive.
As leaders, it was our job to create the conditions for great schools to develop rich educational programs — programs steeped arts, sciences, sports, civics, and much more.
And if our best schools had the capacity to expand to serve more students, we would support them in doing so.
For our city, this process led us to transition to a system where over 90 percent of the students now attend nonprofit, public charter schools. Of course, other cities may take a different path.
What have been the results of letting great schools thrive in New Orleans?
New Orleans’ high-school graduation rates have climbed from under 50 percent to over 70 percent, catching the Louisiana state average.
In 2005, only 37 percent of New Orleans’ third through eighth graders scored proficient. In 2014, 57 percent scored proficient.
Lastly, in 2005 New Orleans was ranked in the third percentile of all school districts in Louisiana. Over the past nine years, it has skyrocketed to the 47th percentile.
Does this mean New Orleans public schools are excellent? No. But are they significantly improved? Yes.
Over the past decade, New Orleans has arguably seen the greatest student achievement gains of any city in the country.
Admittedly, we shouldn’t draw too much from one data point. It’s much too early to say whether or not all charter districts “work.”
But some lessons can be drawn from the New Orleans experience.
First, significant improvement is possible. If every city in America achieved what New Orleans has achieved over the past decade, students in this country would be receiving much richer educational experiences — educational experiences that would better prepare them for college, career, and life.
Second, any strategy that employs public charter schools requires strong governmental oversight. Charter schools are public schools, and the government must be a sound steward over the taxpayer dollars that are used to support this new structure for public education. Additionally, government must ensure that every student has equal access to great schools.
Third, and most importantly, the focus for leaders on the ground must be about ensuring great schools can thrive.
A truly non-ideological approach would allow the best schools in any city — be they district or charter — to expand to serve more children.
New Jersey is home to some of the best charter schools in the nation. It would be foolish to not let these schools continue to grow and thrive.
Just as it would be foolish not to further empower the traditional school leaders that are also achieving great results.
At the end of the day, allowing all great schools to expand is a sound and obvious strategy.
New Jersey is blessed with generous public funding for education, a talented teacher workforce, and inspiring educational leaders who are willing to open up additional excellent public schools that can reach thousands of more children.
It would be incredibly unfortunate to waste what are perhaps the best conditions for public schooling in the nation.
So whether it is in the Legislature, at a school board meeting, or in a town hall gathering — if a debate arises that really boils down to whether or not to let great schools thrive — the answer should always be “Yes.”
Saying “No” is to deny some children the educational experiences that all children deserve.