When a city goes through a tragic and traumatic shock — whether in the form of a terrorist attack, natural disaster, violent unrest or major population loss — the road to recovery can look endless. But the subsequent journey can also be liberating, freeing local leaders from the mistakes of the past, opening new avenues for rejuvenation, and turning what is often the most undervalued quality in government — imagination — into a necessity.
That spirit, familiar to all New Yorkers, is alive and well in New Orleans, and nowhere is it more apparent or productive than in the city’s public schools.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast 10 years ago Saturday, the New Orleans public school system was a slow-rolling catastrophe for far too many students — the vast majority of whom were black and poor. The state considered most of the city’s schools “academically unacceptable,” and no wonder: Only 35 percent of students were meeting basic standards. Only 54 percent graduated from high school. And only 37 percent enrolled in college. The schools served as more of a poverty trap than a springboard to a better life.
Hurricane Katrina, which badly damaged most of the city’s school buildings, forced the city and the state to confront a broken system as they dealt with other calamities. To their great credit, community and elected leaders dared to imagine an entirely new approach to the public schools. They didn’t tinker around the edges. They embarked on the most sweeping and innovative changes any city has ever undertaken.
With no students after the storm, and with the schools underwater, the local school board dismissed its teachers and principals. But many veterans returned and helped mentor new hires, some of whom were recruited by organizations like Teach For America.
Almost all schools were freed from the central bureaucracy and converted into charters. Pedagogic power was decentralized to the schools, along with flexibility in setting salaries and work rules and in establishing professional development programs for teachers.
Attendance zones were abolished, giving parents choices in where to send their children. Standards were raised, and schools were held accountable for their performance. Those that failed to make progress were replaced by new schools or taken over by more successful charter school organizations.
This combination of accountability, autonomy and choice provided a stronger foundation for both students and teachers. Two independent studies released this month show that over the past decade, the percentage of students meeting basic standards has gone from less than half to almost two-thirds. High school graduation rates have increased by nearly 20 points, to 73 percent. And college enrollment, which rose 22 percentage points, now exceeds the level in the rest of the state.
Of course, hard lessons were learned along the way. For instance, charges of screening out struggling students led to a new enrollment process in which all schools accept all students, no matter their academic background. But the undeniable improvement in student achievement shows that New Orleans has as much to teach the country about the promise of smarter education policies as it does the dangers of climate change.
Many foundations (including Bloomberg Philanthropies) played a supporting role in the city’s education reforms, but the credit belongs to the children, teachers and school leaders who did the hard work, and the parents and public officials — including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, John White, the Louisiana superintendent of education, and Chas Roemer, the state board of education president — who empowered and supported them.
Much work remains, of course — both inside and outside the school system. Poverty and unemployment are far too high, particularly for the black community. Those problems can’t be dealt with effectively without expanding the progress being made in the schools, but Mayor Landrieu and other community leaders are bringing the same spirit of innovation that has made that progress possible to other areas of the city’s life.
For instance, for years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had the highest murder rate of any large city in the country. In 2013, the rate dropped significantly, and it fell further in 2014, hitting a 16-year low. What changed?
Mayor Landrieu began searching for new strategies to drive down homicides. As part of that work, he won a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies funding an Innovation Team, a program we created to help local governments find new ways to tackle their toughest problems. The team worked in partnership with city agencies and community organizations. Together they adopted strategies to improve police enforcement and to expand outreach to gang members and violent offenders, who were offered opportunities for job training and social services. This year, although killings are up, overall violent crime continues to decline.
The Innovation Team has also helped Mayor Landrieu make it easier for new businesses to open their doors. The city streamlined and expedited the regulatory process, cutting the types of permits and licenses required to open a business by 30 percent and reducing wait times by 80 percent, which is helping to attract entrepreneurs and tech startups. Also helping to increase economic activity there, along with every other place that has taken this step: New Orleans banned smoking in bars and restaurants this year, which will boost tourism and lead people to spend more time (and money) in the city’s famous music clubs.
As with education and public safety, New Orleans has a long way to go to improve economic opportunities for all its residents. But in each case, the city is embracing imaginative and innovative policies that have brought it back from the brink of collapse — and offer hope for what the next 10 years will bring.
Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and the former mayor of New York City.
Editor’s Note: This commentary was provided by Bloomberg View.