W.S. Journal: Katrina Creates "Opportunity"

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

W.S. Journal: Katrina Creates "Opportunity"

It has never come as a surprise when the editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal attack teacher unions or public schools. But it doesn't get much more cynical than this morning's column by WSJ editorial writer Brendan Miniter.

Most sane human beings would consider the forced closure of New Orleans public schools as one of many unfortunate impacts of Hurricane Katrina's destruction. But in an outrageous column headlined "A Silver Lining?" Miniter wants Americans to consider this to be good news. He writes:
As devastating as Hurricane Katrina has been, it now presents New Orleans officials with an opportunity. The city's 60,000 public school students have been trapped in a failing system for decades. There is no reason why the public education bureaucracy and other obstacles to real reform should now follow them as they move temporarily to Texas and elsewhere.

... Public schools are another area of government failure in New Orleans .... the city has some of the worst-performing schools in the state .... As in most districts around the nation, the obstacle to real reform in New Orleans has largely come from teachers unions. One measure of union strength has been the city's inability to fire teachers even as schools continue to fail.

New Orleans's kids now have a better shot at getting a decent education. Many students displaced by the floods are likely to be absorbed into local schools from Texas to Tennessee and beyond, most will likely be a fair bit better than the New Orleans public schools. Other students could also find themselves in makeshift schools, such as outside Houston's Astrodome, or taught by teachers who lack proper certification but are willing to step into the breach.
WSJ suggests that anyone is sufficiently qualified to teach if he or she is merely "willing" to do so. But if this is the key standard, then it seems to work against the WSJ's assertion that lots of supposedly bad teachers in New Orleans deserve to be fired. Bad teachers, like good teachers, are certainly "willing" to the extent that they keep showing up at school and keep collecting a paycheck. Willingness to teach isn't what separates good teaching from bad teaching.

In the column, Miniter notes that the finances of New Orleans public schools have been in "disarray," and he adds that "as of Aug. 1 about 200 (New Orleans) teachers had yet to be told which school to report to or even which grades they were to teach." Given this unstable environment, does it surprise anyone that the best teachers would tend to opt for jobs in wealthier, suburban school districts?

Say what you will about the teachers who teach in New Orleans, but there don't appear to be thousands of people lining up to replace them. Many of them have been doing their very best to help kids learn in schools with leaking roofs and outdated textbooks, and they're doing it in a city with an astounding poverty rate of 24%.

Granted, New Orleans' public schools are falling far short of what their students deserve. But what statistical basis does Miniter have to presume that New Orleans children "now have a better shot at getting a decent education" in schools based in the neighboring states "from Texas to Tennessee ..."?

Louisiana's southern neighbors have a reputation that should hardly make the Bayou State envious. Urban and rural school districts in Arkansas and Mississippi face at least as many challenges as those in Louisiana. Neither is Texas an educational Shangrila. Last September, a Texas judge ruled that the state's school funding formula was inadequate and, therefore, unconstitutional.

The only "silver lining" in Katrina would have been if the hurricane had veered northward -- instead of into the Gulf -- and swept away the editorial offices of this curmudgeonly newspaper.

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