Letter: Poll shows parents support choice

Professor J. Celeste Lay argues in her commentary (“Charter experiment in New Orleans a failure”) that education reform in New Orleans is a fiasco. She selects one data point to suggest the city’s scores remain stagnant and the Recovery School District has failed.

Of course, this reform cannot be adequately judged on a single data point. Over the last five years, RSD, which oversees 75 percent of New Orleans’ schools, has produced higher academic gains than any district in Louisiana. Since 2009, the percentage of RSD-NOLA students at the basic level and above has increased 20 percentage points. Louisiana students at or above basic has increased by only 5 percentage points in that period.

The city as a whole has come closer to the state average: in 2009, academic performance in New Orleans was 16 percentage points behind Louisiana, but is now only 6. This accomplishment since Katrina is extraordinary and the result of hard work by educators and students; improvement is cause for celebration, not scorn. The writer then launches an attack on choice, with no evidence to back up the polemic. The role of selective admission charters, which are less than a third of OPSB charters, is overstated.

While it is true that the enrollment system, OneApp, cannot guarantee that students are assigned to one of their top choices, it is also true that 90 percent of students in the key transition grades of kindergarten and ninth grade this spring received one of their top three choices. OneApp is part of the solution to expanding access and equity; it’s not the problem. With the most expansive choice policy in America, we have an obligation to learn how parents make decisions when they are given an array of options.

Parents are working hard to make the best matches for their children. However, Lay attacks choice as problematic and leading to more inequality.

Today’s New Orleanians do not see it that way. Last week the Cowen Institute released a poll and found 53 percent of New Orleans voters believe choice has had a positive impact on education, while 20 percent said it was a negative. Seventy-nine percent felt all schools should use a common application process. In 2013 we polled parents and found 56 percent of New Orleans public school parents supported choice.

Lay’s response is essentially that the public has been brainwashed by “the elite” and she seems unwilling to entertain the growing evidence the system is working. There are reasonable critiques of the city’s schools, to be sure, but her arguments miss their mark. We need a debate based on evidence.

John Ayers

executive director, Cowen Institute, Tulane University

New Orleans