Category Archives: Public Opinion

The New Orleans reforms have been both impactful and popular but the gains are plateauing

The New Orleans reform efforts are nearly thirteen years old.

As a reminder, the efforts led to some of the most significant achievement gains in our country’s recent history.


In a recent Sean Reardon study that appeared in the New York Times, New Orleans was the only city that scored in the top ten for growth in the country and serves a majority of African-American students.

All of the other top performing districts, except for Chicago, barely serve any African-American students, as the chart of the top ten growth districts below shows:

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College enrollment rates have also skyrocketed, though we don’t yet have great data on college completion and post-secondary outcomes.

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However, most of the test score gains were made in the first 7 years of the reforms, and the city is no longer increasing relative to overall state performance.

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The gains in New Orleans are very real. But so is the current plateauing of test score performance. It remains an open question whether or not the system will see another significant increase in student performance. My guess is that the increases will eventually pick up again, but at more modest rates.

A particularly difficult strategy question is what philanthropy can do to help New Orleans at this juncture.

Leaders in the city are both trying to double down on expanding the best operators, as well as help all schools increase their instructional rigor.

Over the long-haul, I believe that most gains will come from scaling the best school operators, selectively starting new operators, and replacing the worst. But I do think that supports to help all schools can lead to some improvement, though my expectations with these types of reforms are modest. Many smart people disagree on how to allocate funds across these two types of strategies. It will be interesting to see what we learn from New Orleans over the next few years on this issue.


But what do the people think?

The Cowen Institute just came out with its annual polling data on New Orleans education. The poll draws from registered voters in New Orleans.

When it comes to voter perception of the system, votes are split between “the system is getting better” and “the system is staying the same.” Very few feel it’s getting worse.

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The perception mirrors the data: the system has improved, but these improvements are slowing down, and it’s unclear that things are getting much better now.

The public also continues to support charter schools and the city’s unified enrollment system.

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Only 17% of voters disagreed that charters had improved education, putting charter favorability at a 3:1 ratio.

Even more interesting: 70% of public school parents believed charter schools had improved education, compared to only 50% of those without children.

Charters seem to be winning those they serve but not fully winning those they don’t.

Open enrollment also only had 16% negative rate, putting it a 3:1 favorability rating.


Overall, the New Orleans reforms have been both impactful and popular.

Right after Katrina, neither of these outcomes were inevitable. In the early years of the reforms, school performance was very uneven and the reforms were very controversial.

It is incredibly difficult to transform a whole city’s educational system in a way that increases opportunities for children and garners the support of the public.

I am hopeful that other cities, such as Camden (see here for a good New York Times profile on the city’s efforts), will also do great things for kids and gain the public’s trust.



Only Normal Things Scale

Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I’m tempted to say that I’m trying to make the concept of relinquishment normal.

Right now, it is not normal to let educators operate their own schools; to let families choose amongst these schools; and to transition to government to more of a regulatory role.

Rather, it is normal for the government to directly operate schools; for families to be assigned a school based on their address; and for regulation to be handled by the same entity that is operating schools.

Every Adopter Reduces Psycho-Social Barriers for the Next Adopter 

New Orleans was the first city to build an education system on the aforementioned principles, and it did so in a very abnormal situation.

New Orleans (in so many ways!) is not normal.

Perhaps if 8-10 cities adopt similar principles, then these ideas will become modestly normal.

And then perhaps 10-20 other cities will start pushing that direction.

The more normal it is, the more quickly it will be adopted. Each marginal user slightly lowers the psychological barrier for the next user.

“Vote for Abnormality!” is Not a Winning Slogan 

Most people react negatively to abnormal things. This is why in Massachusetts, the home of the nation’s highest performing charter schools (in Boston), people in the suburbs will likely vote against eliminating the charter school cap.

For people in the suburbs, neighborhood public schools – as well as private schools – are normal. Charter schools are not normal.

When you’re in a referendum, you don’t want to be the abnormal option.

People’s Fidelity to Normality is Much Higher than Their Fidelity to Ideas 

Many people disagree with an idea when it is abnormal and then agree with the idea when it becomes normal.

This, for example, is why I think getting to ~50% charter market share is so important. All of a sudden, charters become normal – and the people who previously did not like charter schools become ok with them.

Other policies such as unified enrollment, unified accountability, the transformation of operators for failing schools…. all these things can become normal over time, as New Orleans has shown.

Abnormal is for the Moment of Disruption, Normal is for Scale

Entrepreneurs who come up with amazing ideas are often very abnormal people; however, to scale their disruption, they generally have to do a lot of normal things, including convincing others that their new idea will become the new normal.

Sometimes they fail to make this transition.

Equally problematic: sometimes people who are trying to disrupt things act too normal. They say they want to change the world, but ultimately they want to be liked… and be normal.

This doesn’t work either.

So you need congruence between your current level of normality and the level of normality that the situation requires for you to be successful.

This can be tricky to pull off.

Is Education Philanthropy Undermining Democracy?

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There is a tension between philanthropy and democracy, and one can imagine a world where wealthy philanthropists attempt to scale public policy solutions that do not have public support.

Now that I work in philanthropy, this is something I think about a lot.

Michael Massing raised this subject in his recent piece, How to Cover the 1%. Specifically, Michael called for information transparency that would allow the public to track “hedge fund managers’ backing of charter schools.”

Michael is not alone in worrying about this issue. The education reform movement, which is supported by philanthropy, is often accused of undermining democracy.

I think this accusation is mostly false when it comes to charter school expansion.

Charters have Broad Government Support 

In 1994, Bill Clinton ushered in the federal government’s charters school program.

21 years later, a bipartisan rewrite of No Child Left Behind increased funding for charter schools by 32% to $333 million. This was less money for charter schools than the Obama administration had requested.

Additionally, 43 states and Washington D.C. provide public funding for charter schools. Charter schools operate in both extremely conservative and liberal states.

Yes, this could all be some massive corporate reform conspiracy that has infiltrated all levels of government.

But I doubt it.

In year seven of his presidency, I’m skeptical that Obama is pushing charter schools in order to please his corporate overlords.

I suspect he’s pushing charter schools because he believes they can expand educational opportunity.

Since the passage of the first charter school law in 1991, charter schools have been supported through the democratic process with bipartisan support time and time again.

Charter Schools have Broad Public Support

Polling on charter schools has generally found public support. Here is historical data from the PDK poll:

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The 2015 data showed a drop to 64% support, while an Ed Next poll with different phrasing showed support around 50%.

It is possible that wealthy people are funding propaganda that is fooling the public into supporting charter schools, but I’m skeptical that this is true given how broad and long-standing this support is.

That being said, there is evidence that the public doesn’t really understand what charter schools are, so I’m open to the notion that we should be wary from drawing too much from polls.

But to the extent you trust polls, there is a lot of evidence that the public support charter schools.

There is one sector of the public that most deviates from overall public opinion: teachers.

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Charter Schools Increase Educational Opportunity for At-Risk Youth 

Overall, charter school quality is mixed. However, in urban areas, where charter schools often serve at-risk students, the results are robust and positive.

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Very few education interventions deliver positive results as this scale.

Urban charter schools are expanding educational opportunity across the country.

In Sum 

Over the past twenty-five years, charter schools have built broad public support across the federal government, state governments, and the public as a whole.

Philanthropic support for charter school expansion is accelerating a public policy that already receives significant public financial support and is generally viewed favorably by the public.

Additionally, rigorous evidence demonstrates that charter schools in urban areas are raising student achievement for poor and minority youth.

This is not to say that there is nothing to worry about. National polls could hide local variance. There are certainly cases when philanthropist support for charter school exceeds public desire. Unchecked charter support could also lead to regulatory capture that results in a lot of fraud and waste.

None of this is simple. And it is not to say that charter schools are the end all be all of education transformation. Issues like teacher recruitment and development, child poverty, career preparation, and college access – to name a few – are also extremely important.

But, at the very least, the strongest claims of education philanthropy critics appear to be false when it comes to charter schools.

What New Orleanians Say About Education Reform When You Call and Ask Their Opinions

I have mixed feelings on public opinion polls.

On one hand, I feel like a pollster can get any answer she wants by manipulating question wording, especially on complicated policy issues.

As such, I prefer to study revealed preferences (behaviors) instead of polling results.

On the other hand, it can be difficult to get behavioral data on all issues, so polls are sometimes the best we have.

At the very least, people who argue for and against the New Orleans reforms, especially national commentators, should grapple with what actual New Orleanians say about the reforms.

With that in mind, see below for some data from the Cowen Institute’s new poll results.

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A 3:1 ration in favor of support of charter schools is pretty significant. This is an odd result if it is actually true that charter schools have ruined public education in New Orleans.

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Unlike two years ago, more African-Americans now believe that schools are better than before the storm, though the margin is slim. Interestingly enough, white support has declined.

For both African-American and white results, I’d be curious to see if there is a difference in between (1) people who newly send their children to public schools (2) people who don’t send their children to public schools (3) people who sent their children to public schools both before and after the storm.

All told, I think this is a real issue for reformers. Middling African-American support threatens both the legitimacy and the sustainability of reforms, in New Orleans and elsewhere.

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Most New Orleanians, like myself, do not believe a child should be assigned to a school based on her address. I still find it remarkable that many people believe that geographic assignment is the more just policy.

That being said, this might be another place where a polling question prevents nuance. There are regulatory solutions that can attempt to combine both  geographic preference and citywide choice, and I’d be curious to understand how families might preference various regulatory regimes.

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Given how difficult transformations can be, it is interesting to see this strong of support. I’m curious if we’d see this amount of support for outright school closures.


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Given that one of the major criticisms of the New Orleans reforms is that they were done without local democratic oversight, it’s interesting to see nearly a 2:1 margin of support for the state takeover.

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Support for return within two years has gone up significantly, but the current policy of schools being able to choose still whether or not to come back is still (barely) the most popular policy.

This will clearly be an issue to watch over the next year or two.

What the Wealthy Want in Education Policy


Yesterday I wrote a post noting Gilen’s research that the wealthy have outsized influence on policy in the instances when 70-80% of the wealthy agree on an issue.

But I had not seen data on what the wealthy want for education policy.

Ask and ye shall receive: Sarah Reckhow and Marty West sent over some very useful data.

Sarah sent over a paper with this great chart:

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Marty sent me this link to the Education Next poll with a cross tab for affluent.

So what do the wealthy want in education policy? Each of the below scored at least a 75% support rate in one of the above polls.

1. Merit pay.

2. Charter schools.

3. Vocational education.

4. Test based accountability.

Interestingly enough, the general public also has a 70% support rate for everyone of the above policies!

So, at least based on these polls, the favorite policies of the wealthy are supported by the general public.

Of course, as the above chart details, the public also favors many additional education policies (such as more spending) that the wealthy do not.

Given how much we’ve increased education spending over past couple of decades, the public seems to be winning that fight.

But, at first glance, it appears that the favorite policies of the wealthy are also supported by the public.

If this is actually the case, there seems to be little merit in the argument that the wealthy are influencing public education in a manner that works against the public will.

Rather, the agenda of the wealthy is an aligned subset of the agenda of the general public.

If this is true, has anyone written about this before? This seems to run against many arguments that appear in op-eds, blogs, and twitter.

Or am I misreading the data?