One of my friends who lived in New Orleans when Katrina struck made an astute observation: the very same things that made New Orleans so much fun were its undoing. There was that devil may care attitude about corruption and other civic activities. Nowhere was this lax attitude better reflected than in the city’s dreadful public school system.

A U.K. newspaper recently described the city’s public schools:

New Orleans schools used to be infamous, among the worst in America. Generations of children were crushed by low expectations, poor teaching, incompetent management and corruption. The statistics were damning. City schools ranked near the bottom nationally in reading and maths, with 19 out of every 20 high school seniors testing below basic proficiency in English and maths in school exit exams. In some schools, nearly one-third of seniors dropped out during the school year. And these were children desperately in need of good schooling – nearly 80 per cent of the city’s students were living under the poverty line as wealthier families fled to the suburbs and the private school system.

But that is how things used to be. Now the school system is drastically changed. A once hopeless system has improved by leaps and bounds, with test scores on the rise and disciplinary problems falling.  What made the difference? Katrina. The newspaper notes:

The reason is simple. In the wake of the disaster, state politicians unleashed a bottom-up revolution in the city’s schools beyond even our Education Secretary Michael Gove’s wildest dreams. The breaking of the levees breached a mindset that excused failure. A bureaucratic system run by local officials was torn up and handed over to a hotchpotch of philanthropists, entrepreneurs, ambitious teachers and even local universities. Parents were given freedom over where to send their children, unions were sidelined, and now standards are rising to such an extent there are lectures on the experiment at Mr Kleban’s alma mater, Harvard Business School.

If New Orleans’ once-awful schools can be rescued, then it can happen anywhere. Note two of the things it took: sidelining unions and giving parents freedom to pick the right school for their children.  

Hat tip: Melanie Phillips of The Spectator