Back to the future: reflections on returning to New Orleans

I recently spent a week in New Orleans.

I lived in New Orleans for most of 1998-2015, save for a few years away at law school. Simply landing at the airport brings back a lot of emotions.

My friends in New Orleans were mostly my education colleagues. So catching-up with friends also means catching-up with amazing education and civic leaders.


My week in New Orleans was a shot in the arm.

In many cities it is becoming difficult to empower educators. In Los Angeles the school board just voted to ask the state to make it illegal to open new non-profit schools for the remainder of the year. Many hope to extend this to five years, if not forever.

In other cities advocates have thwarted creating easy to use online enrollment systems that can help families find great schools for their children.

These efforts are couched in the language of social justice. But their impact will not be just: educators will not be able to create, and parents will not be able to access, better public schools.

New Orleans stands apart from these cities. By next year, 100% of schools in the city will be governed by non-profit organizations. Each year, families can access the city’s online enrollment system to find a good fit for their children.

Writing in The New York Times, David Leonhardt  covered research showing large academic gains across the city, as well as positive trends in high school graduation, postsecondary enrollment, and postsecondary completion.

New Orleans citizens also have regained control of their schools. An elected board oversees the public education system. And the education leadership of the city is beginning to better reflect the students the schools serve. The school district is again black led. Patrick Dobard, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, is putting forth a great vision for the city.


As I work across the country, a lot of people are quick to tell me that the the education transformation in New Orleans could never happen in their city, nor would they want it to.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m too conciliatory in my response. I always say that every city is different; that each city needs to blaze its own path. This is of course true and it is why I say it.

But I think from now on instead of my first response being “every city is different,” I’m going start with “why not?”

I want to be more direct because I think a part of the reason people dismiss New Orleans is that it relieves them of the burden of exploring if the best solution might be the solution they don’t want to deal with.

Yes, the New Orleans path might not be right for every city. But New Orleans is the only majority African-American student city in the nation to rank in the top ten for most academic growth between 2009 and 2015

If you’re a city leader trying to make public education better for low-income families, you should study New Orleans, not write it off.

And I would definitely not hold New Orleans up as a future to be avoided at all costs. Those advocating against non-profit schools claim that the private operation of public schools will ruin public education.

In New Orleans the public schools are operated by private non-profit organizations.

But public education has not been ruined. It has been revitalized and depoliticized.

Instead of worrying about the next top down mandate, educators can build enduring institutions that will serve students well for decades.

Instead of fretting about whether the next school board election will lead to strategic chaos, district leaders can thoughtfully evolve their oversight of public schools.

Instead of fearing that the only way to get into a good public school is to be able to afford an expensive house, families have much more equitable access to public schools in the city.

If this is the hell of privitization, what word should we use to describe the chaos of public education systems in Houston, Nashville, and so many other cities across the country?


I don’t know if my returning to New Orleans was going back to our country’s future. The odds are surely against it.

And of course New Orleans has thousands of more problems to solve in its journey to create an amazing public school system, both in terms of improving its K12 system and expanding postsecondary options.

But what city is better equipped to solve its next wave of challenges? I can’t think of any.

If you’re feeling beat down about your city or country, I suggest a trip down to NOLA.

In so many ways, it will lift your spirits.


1 thought on “Back to the future: reflections on returning to New Orleans

  1. Ann Moses

    “In many cities it is becoming difficult to empower educators.”

    Chicago will hold the first round of mayoral elections on February 26th. The 2 top vote getters go to an April 2nd runoff. The mayor who will be sworn in appoints the entire school board. On June 1st CTU’s contract expires and it will do what was just done in LAUSD. Why isn’t the education transformation community do anything to ensure Paul Vallas is Chicago’s next mayor?


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.