The national attention focused on New Orleans during the run-up to Super Bowl XLVII included many positive reviews for the city’s comeback since the dark days of September 2005.
However, the significance of post-Katrina progress in the Crescent City is that innovations in national policy are being made here, in education in particular.
One of the boosters of the radical changes in schools in New Orleans is the nation’s leading business newspaper, The Wall Street Journal.
The Journal took editorial note of the progress since Katrina: “For once, the Big Easy has earned this excuse to party, coming back to life better than ever.”
The Journal’s enthusiasm for New Orleans is in part ideological: It favors the public charter schools that blossomed in the city under the Recovery School District — an innovation launched before the storms by Gov. Kathleen Blanco, but vastly expanded by the necessities of school reorganization after Katrina. The Journal is also enthusiastic about the state vouchers for private-school tuition, backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and launched on a small scale in 2008, although since expanded.
But the enthusiasm for the turnaround of the city from pre-Katrina mismanagement — “one of the worst-run and most politically calcified places in America” — goes beyond education reforms.
Political change is difficult in urban America, and New Orleans has achieved it in spades, including the leadership of a newly energized business community since the storms.
The Journal, heavily Republican in its leanings, even went so far as to praise Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “The budget was balanced,” the Journal said. “He upgraded the airport and opened a new streetcar line along Loyola Avenue in time for the Super Bowl.”
As many of the Journal’s readers are businesspeople, the positive statements about the city’s business climate and future attractiveness are welcome.
“Relatively low state and local taxes and cost of living are helping to make New Orleans a magnet for business startups and young college graduates — what Seattle or Austin were in other recent decades,” the Journal said. “Energy and hospitality are doing well. The jobless rate of 4.7 percent is lower even than in that other American boomtown, Washington, D.C., but for reasons other than a growing government.”
This kind of positive coverage was mitigated by an appreciation of the challenges still facing the city, as future progress is not guaranteed, the Journal said. “School test scores and graduation rates are improving but still aren’t great,” the Journal noted. “New Orleans remains the nation’s murder capital, with three times Chicago’s homicide rate, and the police have to earn public trust. The relative racial comity of the city’s politics is recent and perhaps not enduring.”
True enough, and the city’s future progress will depend on a great deal more achievement against some truly difficult tasks. Poverty and crime are intertwined in many areas of the city, as in other major cities around the nation, but New Orleans has clearly made a start at tackling the tough issues.
New Orleans’ “energy and optimism are unmistakable,” the Journal concluded. “Americans are in a self-doubting mood these days, and not without cause. But the revival of New Orleans shows what self-government can accomplish when enough citizens choose to break up the corrupt status quo.”
While we agree with the forward-looking tone of that closing assessment, we see some of the problems rooted in society and not only a function of the inadequacies of public institutions. The break-up of the status quo has to be followed by common efforts toward a better future for the city.
We hope and expect that when the Journal and others revisit New Orleans’ story — the 10th anniversary of Katrina is coming in a couple of years, and the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding is 2018 — the assessments will continue to show real progress, the kind that demonstrates what our people and institutions are capable of.