Stories + Views
Gove looks to New Orleans for inspiration – but is the comparison valid?
New Orleans’ schools that survived Hurricane Katrina were closed indefinitely by the City authorities. Many teachers, who had suffered themselves in the disaster, tried to enter schools to clean up but were met by armed guards, TES reports. The state intervened, reopened the schools using the Charter model and sacked all existing teachers who were replaced by young, idealistic college graduates. However, the majority of teachers displaced were just as passionate but they lost their jobs – many had also lost their homes.
New Orleans may be hailed as a “miracle” but it isn’t possible to apply this to England. The New Orleans educational change has been likened to the fall of communism in the Eastern bloc. I’m sure Secretary of State, Michael Gove, would like to use this analogy to describe his tearing down the structure of English education but it doesn’t quite match. New Orleans schools were run on a highly centralised model unlike anything experienced in the UK. Charter heads now have considerably more autonomy but their freedom is no more than has been enjoyed by heads in community schools in England for 20 years.
New Orleans charters use the same “no excuses” model – a philosophy enthusiastically endorsed by Mr Gove. However, not all UK charters use this model. Some like Freire in Philadelphia are more relaxed but even here there is a high attrition rate, something that characterises charter schools.
TES reported that Sam Freedman, Gove’s special adviser, found no evidence that the “competitive autonomous system” in New Orleans led to fragmentation. He discovered charter schools in the city tended to work closely together. However, one teacher who supports the reforms says this cooperation doesn’t always work. Some charters are reluctant to collaborate and this makes it difficult in a city where family instability means pupils frequently change schools. The teacher said the high level of accountability in the city’s charter system was a positive innovation but it did have undesirable side-effects. Neighbouring schools could face a sudden influx of new pupils if an underperforming charter was closed. The same teacher expressed concern that many charters opted out of teacher pension schemes and regretted that there was no union representation.
Freedman was impressed with the broad support for the charter system in New Orleans. This is hardly surprising when the choice was between charter schools or no schools. He told TES, “They didn’t have for-profit schools, nor did they need any profit to make it work. It is very much driven by philanthropy.”
But this dependence on philanthropy has serious downsides. The underfunded California education system relies on philanthropy and fund-raising but donor fatigue has set in – it was, in any case, non-existent in poorer areas. In Philadelphia, where the system is also in meltdown, schools funded by philanthropic finance tend to attract more motivated pupils leaving the poorly-funded state system to cope with the rest.
If Gove is looking at the US for evidence to underpin his academy conversion and free schools policy, it behoves him to consider the drawbacks.