1) Did student achievement actually improve?
2) If that improvement did happen, was it worth the price?
The answer to the first question is "Probably not" (though the careful secrecy and hoarding of data makes a definitive answer difficult), but we can still move on to the second question without a definitive answer to the first, because the price in NOLA was the suspension of "local control," which is another way to say "democracy."
On twitter and in the blogs, reformsters like to frame the struggle as one between the rights of students and the preservation of the institution. "I won't sacrifice the needs of students to preserve the privilege of the school system," is a familiar construction.
But the school system is an arm of democracy.
Granted, democracy has some problems these days. We can get angry about outside interests taking over the Douglas County school board (check out the new documentary Education, Inc for a closer look)-- but only 17% of the voters actually voted. Large cities like Chicago and New York have long since mastered the art of subverting democracy. And that's before we get to the areas where politicians have come up with new and creative ways to keep the non-white and the non-wealthy from voting.
But the solution to a problem of Not Enough Democracy is not Less Democracy.
When certain areas of the country worked to disenfranchise black citizens, the best solution, the right solution, the democratic solution was NOT for wealthy, connected folks from outside those communities to come in and say, "Tell you what. We will go ahead and get the people elected that we think you need. We're not going to give your own vote, but we will go ahead and be sure to elect people who will create programs that we think you need."
No. The solution when an American citizen is deprived of his or her right to democracy is to restore that right.
For year upon year, the response to a movement to give women a vote was to say, "Hey, they don't need it. The menfolk will vote in their best interest. "
For year upon year, the response to calls for emancipation was, "Black folks don't need to be freed. The slaveowners look after them and see that their best interests are taken care of."
It would be bad enough if the policy makers who have descended on Newark and Camden and New Orleans and Philadelphia and Chicago were simply saying, "It's okay. The parents and voters and taxpayers and citizens of these places don't need an elected school board. They don't need a vote. Wise folks from Out Of Town will look out for their best interests."
That would be bad enough. But the subtext is often worse-- These People can't be trusted to run their own schools or raise their own children, so for their own good, we're going to have to suspend democracy for them.
And so they get systems in which they have no say. Schools open and close based on business decisions, and local citizens have no say. Tax dollars are thrown left and right, past schools and into the pockets of private interests, and taxpayers have no say. Children are shipped back and forth across a city, ripping their neighborhoods apart, and the residents of those neighborhoods have no say.
Are there places where the schools are failing-- abysmally, utterly, systematically-- to serve the needs of their constituents? Absolutely. And that is a failure of democracy in and of itself (unless you're telling that some urban schools are poor and ineffective because that's what the residents of that community are demanding), a failure of elected officials to respond to the needs of their constituents. But you cannot tell me that the solution for too little democracy or ineffectively implemented democracy is to simply do away with democracy.
We don't suspend democracy or local control often in this country because it is foundational to who we are. In fact, in times like the civil rights era, we have suspended "local control" because it was not really local control at all, but an anti-democratic attempt to silence members of a community.
So how can buy the idea that among the legitimate reasons to suspend local control, to rip away an entire community's democratic power to run their own schools as a backbone of their own community, is to get better test scores on a single narrowly focused standardized test? How did we end up handing so much power to people who not only don't believe that democracy is a fundamental value, but that democracy is a problem to be stamped out?
The defenders of the NOLA privatization experiment are not just arguing for better test scores, but are arguing that stamping out local voices and stifling democratic process are a great thing for the mostly-not-white, mostly-not-wealthy people of New Orleans. I can believe that some really believe that getting those test scores up is just that important, but as long as this is the United States, they are absolutely wrong.