in , ,

Stop Saying Market-Based Reform. Please.

The expression “market-based reform” (or some variation thereof) gets thrown about by folks on both sides of the education reform debate. Opponents use it as a term of derision, intended to describe what they feel is an impersonal, metrics-obsessed approach to teaching and learning. Among supporters, it has a positive connotation, with advocates incessantly touting the benefits of “competition” and “school choice.” Furthermore, for both sides, the Recovery School District (RSD) represents either the shining star or “cautionary tale” of so-called “market-based reform” efforts.

Case-in-point: Claudio Sanchez’s second piece on the RSD that aired on NPR’s All Things Considered last week.1 In his report, Sanchez speaks with the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg who describes the reforms in New Orleans this way:

“My reading of the evidence is that it’s been overblown. There’s still substantial numbers of schools that struggle in New Orleans…We’ve had corporate reformers come into the public system and impose this market-based model.”

Sanchez also interviews John Ayers, Executive Director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University. 2 Ayers doesn’t agree with Kahlenberg’s pessimistic assessment of the RSD, but he does use the same language to describe it: “We’re the only city that has created the first true market in public education, and by no means a perfect market, but listen, it’s unique.”

Richard Kahlenberg (left) and John Ayers might have different takes on the RSD, but they both mischaracterize it as a market-based approach.
Richard Kahlenberg (left) and John Ayers might have different takes on the RSD, but they both mischaracterize it as a market-based approach.

The problem is the RSD doesn’t actually resemble a market in any meaningful sense. Contrary to the rhetoric, the RSD’s success in New Orleans has more to do with strong accountability and collaboration than Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Proponents and critics alike mischaracterize the RSD – and current reform trends, more generally – when they portray them as a market-driven approach to public education.

Below are five reasons why the RSD isn’t a market-based model:

I. There are high “barriers to entry” for charter school operators.

One of the myths about the RSD is that the state swept in and quickly converted the city’s traditional schools into charter schools. In reality, the RSD has taken a long and plodding path to becoming the nation’s first all-charter district. Long-time reform advocate Leslie Jacobs emphasized this in an interview with John Merrow:

“It’s not that charters, in and of themselves, are great schools, but we’ve done chartering well in New Orleans…As I say, you can do it ‘fast failing or a slow success.’ It’s been very much looking for those high quality charter operators and chartering very slowly.”

From the beginning, the state set a high bar for charter applicants by using a third party – originally, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) – to establish criteria, vet proposals, and make recommendations. Bringing in NACSA also helped insulate the process from politics, ensuring that only the most qualified applicants were sent before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) for approval. In 2006, the year after the storm, BESE received 44 applications to open charter schools in New Orleans; only six were approved. Since that time, the RSD has added, on average, only about five charter schools per year.

NACSA helped set a high bar for charter applicants.
NACSA helped set a high bar for charter applicants.

Of course, not all states take as rigorous an approach to charter authorizing as Louisiana, which helps explain the wide variation in charter school performance seen across the country. As NACSA’s Greg Richmond wrote:

“States with the best charter school performance are those with good authorizers who have maintained high standards and have closed failing schools. See New York, Louisiana, and Massachusetts. The lowest-quality states have been those with authorizers who have had low standards. See Texas, Ohio, and others.”

The point here is that bad charter policies beget bad charter schools. The wide variance in charter school performance nationally is not an inevitable by-product of market forces. States like Ohio (especially Ohio) can and should revise their policies to set a higher bar for applicants and hold schools accountable for results.

II. Competition doesn’t force low-performing charter schools out of the “marketplace” – government intervention does.

This is where free-marketers’ faith in the ideal of Homo Economicus – i.e., that human beings act “rationally” in their own best interests – runs headlong into the wall of reality. The RSD’s experience in New Orleans illustrates (and studies elsewhere have confirmed) that families don’t always make the choices one would expect when choosing a school.

For example, when Benjamin Mays Preparatory School was closed by the RSD at the end of the 2012-13 school year, the school still had an enrollment of approximately 360 students. Although the school’s grade remained an “F” over the course of three years, enrollment at the school remained relatively stable – i.e., most families didn’t respond to low performance by pulling out their children, as one might have expected.3

In fact, while over a dozen RSD charters have closed over the past nine years, there’s only been a few examples – such as New Orleans Free Academy – where a school voluntarily gave up its charter due to low enrollment. In nearly every other case, charter school closures have been the result of government intervention (i.e., by BESE rescinding a charter on the recommendation of the RSD) for persistent low performance.

"Market-based reform" may be a great catchphrase, but it doesn't describe reforms like those in the RSD.
“Market-based reform” might be a great catchphrase, but it doesn’t describe reforms like those in the RSD.

III. The evolution of the RSD toward an all-charter district has been marked by greater oversight of and collaboration among schools.

Early on, policymakers and reform advocates recognized that the RSD needed to maintain some measure of coordination and oversight authority over schools as it transitioned to an all-charter system. The challenge facing RSD officials was to establish structures that provided a fair and equitable system for families, while respecting the autonomy that allows charter schools to thrive.

In terms of oversight, the RSD and Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) created the Louisiana Charter School Performance Compact. It outlines a lengthy list of academic, financial, and organizational criteria with which to gauge charter performance, as well as a timeline of state reporting deadlines that schools must meet in order to remain in good standing. At the end of each school year, each charter is scored on the criteria based on data from various sources, including a school visit by LDOE/RSD officials.

In an effort to provide fair and equal access to schools, officials created OneApp, the city-wide enrollment system managed by the RSD. Families seeking to enroll their children in the RSD fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference. This past year, 80% of families received one of their top three preferences. The RSD also established a district-wide expulsion hearing system to ensure that students are not unfairly pushed out of schools.

Families seeking to enroll their children in the RSD fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference.
Families seeking to enroll their children in the RSD fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference.

That’s not to say that these things were simply imposed on charter schools from on high. As State Superintendent John White and his deputy Adam Hawf wrote in an essay on the lessons of the RSD, “Many of our most important policy changes, including the decision to centralize the expulsion process, have come directly from charter school leaders in New Orleans.” In fact, charter schools and community organizations have been the driving force behind several collaborative efforts in the district. Here are just a few examples:

  • The Louisiana Special Education Cooperative was launched in 2008 to promote and support the delivery of meaningful special education services in the city’s charter schools.
  • New Schools for New Orleans organizes school reviews where teams of school leaders from across the city conduct evaluations of charters to provide them with critical feedback on how to improve.
  • More than a dozen of the city’s charter networks and non-profit organizations came together to form the Healthy School Food Collaborative which serves an umbrella School Food Authority focused on providing healthy school meals to students.
The La. Special Education Cooperative and the Healthy School Food Collaborative are two examples of RSD charters working together.
The La. Special Education Cooperative and the Healthy School Food Collaborative are two examples of RSD charters working together.

IV. However, the RSD’s takeover has created a market for talented teachers, administrators, and support staff.

The one area where competition does come into play is staff recruitment. The city’s charter schools invest a significant amount of time and resources into attracting talented teachers and administrators to work in their schools. Many charters involve their staff members in the selection process to ensure prospective employees are a good “fit” for the school community. And, because the RSD holds charters accountable for results, they have a vested interest in recruiting individuals with a proven track record of performance.

This is a marked departure from the pre-Katrina era, when placement decisions were made centrally, in accordance with seniority rules and job protections set forth in the union contract. Outside of a few well-connected principals who could pull strings to influence these decisions, placements were made with little input from either side of the equation and without regard to performance. This often led to a “a dance of the lemons,” where ineffective teachers and administrators were cycled through vacancies, more often than not landing in the highest-need schools. It also made it difficult for principals to build the strong cohesive teams needed to turnaround the district’s lowest performing schools.

V. Characterizing the transformation of New Orleans’ school system as “market-based reform” ignores the motivations of those involved.

It’s hard to take Richard Kahlenberg seriously when he makes a statement like, “We’ve had corporate reformers come into the public system and impose this market-based model.” In the 12 years I’ve been involved in education in New Orleans, I’ve yet to encounter these “corporate reformers” that Kahlenberg and his fellow critics so often speak about. The educators working in charters don’t drive to and from school in convertible BMWs. Charter boards don’t convene to plot hostile takeovers of rival schools. And when charter schools post high test scores, their teachers don’t see a jump in the value of their stock options.

On the other hand, I have encountered a lot of educators who work hard each day because they want to provide their students with the education they deserve. In this cynical age, it may be hard to conceive that folks could be motivated by ideals rather than profit, but in New Orleans that’s the case.

  1. After calling out the error in Sanchez’s first piece on the RSD, I would be remiss if I didn’t state that this report went off without a hitch. 
  2. Irony Alert: John Ayers is the brother of Bill Ayers, former Sixties radical and current education reform opponent
  3. Actually, a group of school and community members fought (in vain) to keep Mays open, in spite of its poor track record. 

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You can encrypt your comment so that only Peter Cook can read it.

An Armchair Psychologist Analyzes Bobby Jindal

Fun With Facts About New Orleans Schools