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New Orleans schools
In this Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 photo, Xavier University student Triton Brown studies in a common area on campus before going to one of his part time jobs in New Orleans. Credit: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Everyone seems to have opinions on education reform in New Orleans post-Katrina. But the one thing New Orleanians agree upon is that college shouldn’t be for everyone – and that’s a shame.

According to the opinion data collected by the Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University, 91 percent of those polled feel that schools should offer career and technical training, curricula that don’t necessarily prepare students for college. Reminder – Louisiana ranks second to last (49th) in the percentage of its adult population who has an associate or bachelor’s degrees. Blacks in Louisiana at 19 percent trail their Asian (47 percent) and white (33 percent) peers in the percentage possessing postsecondary degrees.

Let’s be clear. New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana need more collegians. And the incessant and romantic demand for trade schools at the secondary level partially comes out of a culture that assumes college is for some and not for others. I constantly hear black folk wax poetic about the golden era of trade schools. However, to get real payoff, vocational school should be a postsecondary consideration, and that’s shaky. I wonder if the report K-12 Education Through the Public’s Eyes asked white parents what kind of curriculum, college prep or vocational, do they expose their children to, what we would learn about our beliefs.

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There are few takeaways from the report. In addition to the career and technical education findings, 81 percent of public school parents did believe “their child’s school provides students with a safe place to learn.” We can use that data, but many of the findings won’t satisfy.

New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana need more collegians. And the incessant and romantic demand for trade schools partially comes out of a culture that assumes college is for some and not for others.

I know it’s responsible to use caveats in writing, but they certainly don’t engender confidence. Take for instance the caveat that’s often heard when discussing New Orleans education post-Katrina: “While progress has been made in New Orleans’ public education, there is still room for improvement.” Not very convincing is it? That statement is meant to reflect the lukewarm optimism of the report’s discoveries. However, the statement can be applied to the poll itself.

For instance, 32 percent of blacks and 44 percent of whites believe schools are better than before the storm. These numbers are slightly higher than two years ago when the poll was taken last.

An inching approval rating shouldn’t be a takeaway. Based on the findings, only one-third of people who are most likely to attend public schools are positive on what has transpired (approximately 85 percent of public school students are black).

However, the ostensible low approval is misleading. At some point pre- and post-Katrina reflections becomes meaningless. As years pass, parents have fewer real reference points (children in schools before and after the storm) to make informed opinions. Likewise the report asks the general public if charter schools have improved public education. Fifty-nine percent agree that charters have improved education opposed to 18 percent who disagreed. These findings may be useful for someone running for school board or mayor, but what do actual consumers think?

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Parents’ current experiences should open the report to prioritize findings and to move the study out of the tired ‘are charter schools good or bad?’ debate.

How do parents feel about transportation, enrollment, teacher and school quality, counseling and other day-to-day understandings? Responses to these questions move readers out of the rhetorical battles between reformers and anti-reformers and place the focus squarely on what parents really think about schools.

After the pre- and post storm discussion, Through the Public’s Eyes does get to more relevant issues. For instance, 76 percent of parents believed “information about the process and available schools was definitely or somewhat sufficient compared to just 11 percent who said it was not.” These findings address the clamor on whether or not enrollment process for the highly decentralized system without attendance zones is too confusing for parents.

The enrollment process may be confusing for people new to the system, but parents learn and adapt with each new school year.

An aside – I frown at people who assume black parents can’t ever learn the enrollment system. Believe it or not, black parents do value their children’s educations, carefully weigh the options afforded to them, and they make better decisions over time.

Along racial lines, the report seems to dodge differences on critical questions. For instance, “72 percent supported open enrollment compared to 23 percent who preferred assigning students to schools based on geography alone.” This is a strong finding, but we need more data on black communities’ perspectives on school choice. Whites and middle class folk have enjoyed choice through private and magnet schools for a long time. Studies have shown that blacks who attend public schools support school choice, but there’s always rancor around the loss of the neighborhood school. By not offering a breakdown along racial lines on this issue we can’t see how black consumers differ from the general public.

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Knowing racial differences on choice is particularly important because more than 30 percent of children attend private and parochial schools in New Orleans. Sixty-five percent of the respondents said that private schools “offer better quality compared to 13 percent who said public schools do so.” Again, race matters. “Seventy-two percent of white respondents said private schools offer a better education compared to 61 percent of African-Americans. But, “80 percent of private school parents stated they had never applied for admission at a public or charter school.”

The report provides the reason why we need more focus on public school consumers’ perspectives (overwhelmingly black). We need to extract private school bias from the findings.

Through the Public’s Eyes at best offers a unsatisfying ‘glass half empty or half full’ perspective on education reform in New Orleans. The findings just don’t seem to reflect the boldness of the education reforms or the people whose opinions are as strong as sazeracs.

Once again, while progress has been made; there is still room for improvement.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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