Released on the 25th anniversary of the opening of the first charter schools, David Osborne's Reinventing America's Schools explores the new paradigm of public education that is emerging to fit the realities of the 21st century. Osborne's new book offers a bracing survey of the most dramatic improvements taking place in urban education today, in cities as diverse as New Orleans, Denver, Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis. These cities all have one thing in common: they have all embraced charter schools as a core strategy.
In the 21st century, Osborne argues, we should treat every public school like a charter school—regardless of what we call them. The charter formula—autonomy, accountability, diversity of school designs, and parental choice—is far more effective than the centralized, bureaucratic approach we inherited from the 20th century.
Education reformers have long wished they could simply wipe the slate clean and start over. In 2005, thanks to the third deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, one city got that opportunity.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Louisiana took over all but 17 of New Orleans’ public schools. The state’s Recovery School District (RSD), created to turn around failing schools, gradually transformed all of its New Orleans schools into charter schools. Today the city has about 75 charters and five traditional schools, and 93 percent of public school students attend charters.
Test scores, school performance scores, graduation and dropout rates, college-going rates, and independent studies all tell the same story: The schools doubled or tripled their effectiveness in eight years. The district has improved faster than any other in the state—and no doubt the nation as well. On some metrics, New Orleans is the first major city with a majority of low-income minorities to outperform its state. Now other cities are following suit.
Washington, D.C., with 46 percent of its students in charters, is the fastest improving among the 21 big cities that take the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Denver, with 42 percent in charters or charter-like “innovation schools,” was rated the second fastest improving district with more than 25,000 students in a recent study. A handful of other states have copied Louisiana and created their own recovery districts. New Jersey is following New Orleans’ lead in Camden, where the state took over the district. In Memphis both the local district and the state’s recovery district are turning around failing schools, using charters and charter-like “innovation schools.” Indianapolis has a third of its students in charters, authorized by the mayor, and another 10-20 percent in “innovation network schools,” which have true charter-like conditions.
In this compelling book, Osborne tells inspiring stories of transformation, draws out their lessons, and offers a roadmap for the future of public education.