As the New Orleans public education system transitions into a remarkable new approach toward school governance, it is important to remember the contributions of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, now battling cancer.
In July, the Orleans Parish School Board will become the overseer of a parishwide "system" of independent charter schools, something different from the traditional set-up — and far different from the chaos and poor academic performance of the pre-Katrina school system.
It's evolved over the years since the hurricanes of 2005, but the Council for a Better Louisiana argued in a new report that the changes are a huge advance: "In both reading and math there is a substantial advantage to enrolling in New Orleans charter schools compared to what those same students would have learned had they gone to traditional public schools," CABL noted, quoting from a Stanford University study.
"Other studies have reached that same conclusion," CABL said. The political struggle to get there, though, was complex and involved. Blanco and the late Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard backed state takeover and transition to charter schools.
Many of Blanco's closest political allies opposed the move, including teacher unions. "They lobbied hard for her to maintain the status quo and for some time it was uncertain, at least publicly, where she would ultimately land," the CABL report recalled. "But she displayed a level of political courage that is all too rare among politicians and moved forward decisively to support and oversee the transfer of almost all of New Orleans’ public schools to the state."
There have been many bumps along the road since, of course. Blanco left office in January 2008. But the "students and families received school choice options like they never would have had otherwise, and over time student achievement improved far beyond what could have been expected had things stayed the same," CABL argued.
The organization's tribute to Blanco also notes that she pushed hard for teacher raises and funding for public universities at the average of the Southern states — a target often promised in politics and not achieved until her term.
Here is CABL's assessment of the legacy of Blanco in education: "It is a lasting one that will continue to have a profound and positive impact on students far into the future."
The new era of an OPSB overseeing a portfolio of charter schools is going to be closely watched by education officials across the country. That national profile is the result of tough decisions at a difficult time, and it is appropriate that CABL draws attention to what Blanco did.