The Greatest Education Lab

How Katrina opened the way for an influx of school reformers

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Brian Smith for TIME

New Orleans School Reformers at S.J. Green Charter School in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Paul Vallas, the man who took over the troubled school systems of Chicago and then Philadelphia and upended them, stood before a crowd of New Orleans parents in a French Quarter courtyard earlier this summer and offered a promise. "This will be the greatest opportunity for educational entrepreneurs, charter schools, competition and parental choice in America," he said. Call it the silver lining: Hurricane Katrina washed away what was one of the nation's worst school systems and opened the path for energetic reformers who want to make New Orleans a laboratory of new ideas for urban schools .

Vallas is part of that surge. He was persuaded to leave Philadelphia and take over the New Orleans' Recovery School District by the state's new reform-minded superintendent of education, Paul Pastorek, and by Senator Mary Landrieu, long a proponent of choice and charter schools. They want to give leaders their own schools, give the parents a choice and let the state funding follow the pupils to whatever schools the parents choose. It's a voucher system in all but name that blows up the monopoly of a traditional school district. In the process, they have attracted the best school operators from around the nation to show what they can do, ranging from national nonprofit charter networks such as KIPP schools to for-profit companies like Edison Schools.

I grew up in New Orleans, went to a private school there and have since been acutely aware of how, in almost every American city, there is a two-tiered education system: one for the poor and one for the well-off. That's why I joined the board of Teach for America, which recruits top college graduates to spend two or three years teaching in poor districts, and why I became a supporter of more competition and choice and charter schools in the public education system. So I was eager to see whether the clean slate offered by post-Katrina New Orleans could be used to create a system better than the one we had before. This time, instead of examining the process as a journalist, I had both the advantage and disadvantage of experiencing it as someone who was emotionally involved.

When I returned to New Orleans a few weeks after the storm, I toured the devastated areas on a National Guard Chinook helicopter with other members of the newly formed Louisiana Recovery Authority. Seated next to me, tears in her eyes, was Sarah Usdin, who had been a member of Teach for America and then its executive director in Greater New Orleans. In addition to creating a corps of young teachers, the organization has become, in its 17 years, a wellspring of leadership talent. Its alumni go on to become education entrepreneurs, administrators and activists. Sarah is an example. In the months after our helicopter ride, she formed an organization called New Schools for New Orleans to support school leaders who wanted to come to New Orleans to open charters or invent new approaches to education in the city.

Her work was supported by the NewSchools Venture Fund, a philanthropic investment fund started by two venture capitalists and Kim Smith, who launched it as her project when she had a fellowship at the Aspen Institute, of which I am president. For the past three summers, fund members have convened a meeting in Aspen of educational entrepreneurs, and at the July 2006 gathering, they decided to make New Orleans a focus of their involvement. Some were worried initially that the task would be too daunting. I argued that if they were not willing to take on such a challenge, they should find an easier line of work, such as managing a hedge fund.

The attendees decided that they needed a "harbor master" in New Orleans, someone who could coordinate the various organizations, funders and school operators. So one of the group, Matt Candler, was recruited to become Sarah's chief executive officer at New Schools for New Orleans. Matt had a great job helping charter-school operators in New York City, and he and his wife had just had their first child, so I thought it would be a hard sell. But when we talked, I realized that he was not only willing but also eager to move down. New Orleans was already becoming a magnet for the school-reform movement. For anyone truly infected with the spirit of the cause, missing the opportunity to go there was like missing the chance to fight beside Henry V at Agincourt.

That desire to march into the breach likewise infected another participant at the meeting, Jon Schnur, who in 2000 co-founded New Leaders for New Schools, which seeks to recruit and train principals to work in inner-city schools. Schnur, cheery and tenacious, began lobbying his skeptical board members to open an office in New Orleans. When they finally agreed, he moved there from his New York headquarters, along with his pregnant wife and their 2-year-old son. This spring their daughter was born there. "Jon has drunk the waters of the Mississippi and is a true believer," Sarah jokes.

Like Teach for America, Schnur's organization has become a brain magnet for New Orleans, which once watched its brightest move away and more recently experienced a mass exodus. For his New Orleans director, Schnur was able to lure Tyra Newell, who was the budget director for Chicago public schools. She was born and raised in New Orleans, but after she went to Howard University and then Stanford Graduate School of Business, her father was worried that she would never come back. The hurricane brought her home. She and Schnur hope to bring at least 40 new school principals to New Orleans over the next three years, and the state board of education bestowed on the group in August the power to license and certify these professionals. Says Schnur: "In our first weeks of recruiting, we had 200 applicants for our first 10 slots." As for Teach for America, it hopes to have 125 of its teachers in New Orleans this coming academic year, and the organization's intensely focused founder and leader, Wendy Kopp, has pledged to double that number in three years. Kopp tapped Kira Orange Jones, a Harvard Education School graduate, to take over from Mary Garton as the Teach for America director in New Orleans. Garton will run alumni affairs.

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