In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, along with numerous other similarly devastated cities and towns across the region, was tasked with rebuilding the basic institutions of local government, including its school system. As Douglas N. Harris notes in his new book, Charter School City: What the End of Traditional Public Schools in New Orleans Means for American Education, New Orleans made a decision about how to organize schooling in a way that would set it apart from the rest of the region and, eventually, the rest of the US. Spurred on by a group of well-connected leaders at both the local and state levels, the state of Louisiana took over more than 102 schools formerly run by the local education agency, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). With nearly all of the city’s public schools under its control, the state turned to private, nonprofit charter school operators to provide education for the vast majority of New Orleans’ children. Although by that point there had been charter schools in the US for decades, the scale of the education reforms in New Orleans put the city in a league of its own.

In Charter School City, Harris offers a lucid and compelling account of how these unprecedented education reforms played out in post-Katrina New Orleans. He is a reliable guide. Harris has been researching these reforms for nearly a decade as the founding director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans), a research center at Tulane University dedicated to studying school reform in New Orleans. Drawing on his work with ERA-New Orleans, Harris makes the case that studying New Orleans offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand what can happen when authority over schooling is shifted from a local government to the market. Equally important, Harris argues that studying New Orleans is vital because, in a number of ways, these reforms have succeeded. He writes, “New Orleans is the rare case where we see large gains on a wide variety of measures, from test scores, and high school and college graduation rates, to parent satisfaction” (p. 17). While much of the story of Hurricane Katrina is the story of official neglect and a systemwide failure to care for the residents of a predominantly Black city, what happened to schooling post-Katrina is arguably a bright spot in New Orleans’ recovery.

The story Harris tells, however, is much more complicated than a simple success narrative. Across its three sections, Charter School City reveals that while ambitious policy entrepreneurs were able to reinvent schooling in the city and effect significant change at all levels of the school system, they did so with little regard for the preferences of the local community and even less regard for anything like meaningful community engagement. In the first section, Harris orients the reader to the key concerns he raises in the book, laying out the long-standing debate over the proper roles for government and markets in organizing schooling and providing an overview of how school governance was remade in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He explains how the “reform family” (p. 59)—his term for the tight-knit group of education reformers spearheading the remaking of schooling in the city— led a process that was “top-down” and “outside-in” (p. 70). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harris explains, this approach left a “bitter taste” in the mouths of many longtime residents of New Orleans (p. 72). Especially in light of the fact that a predominantly White group of education policy makers was leading the reform charge for a school system that in 2005 served a student population that was 93 percent Black, the failure to meaningfully engage the community created significant opposition to these reforms, especially among Black residents (p. 72).

In the second section, Harris dives into the research on post-Katrina school reform, laying out what parts of this grand experiment were most responsible for the educational gains seen in New Orleans. He surveys a large and diverse body of research, drawing on work conducted by ERA-New Orleans as well as other unaffiliated researchers. Among other things, he presents findings from quantitative analyses, public opinion surveys, and quasi-experimental research. He frames this discussion around different possible mechanisms through which these reforms may have worked, including increased market competition and choice, changes to teaching and other classroom-level practices, informal cooperation among school leaders, and government oversight. Ultimately, Harris argues that despite claims made by many boosters of market reforms in education, mechanisms like competition and choice were not the primary drivers of success. In fact, he notes that competition produced some unintended consequences, including incentivizing schools to subtly and not-so-subtly compete for the “best” students, whom they believed, rightly or wrongly, would be the easiest to educate and the most likely to score well on standardized tests. Rather, he presents evidence that these reforms succeeded in large part because of meaningful government oversight of nonprofit charter operators during the authorization phase and afterward. He argues that state leaders’ careful choosing of charter operators, attention to whether operators were hitting key performance goals outlined in their contracts, and willingness to take over schools that were not performing well were the key ingredients for reform success in New Orleans—“Though the reforms were accurately characterized as market-oriented, it was the role of government, as authorizer and contractor, that was key to measurable improvement” (p. 194).

In the third section, Harris draws on these findings to advocate for Democratic Choice, a new framework for understanding the proper role of government in the provision of schooling (p. 223). According to Harris, this framework helps point us away from the false choice between free markets and government bureaucracy. Instead, we should see government as, at its best, a crucial “market-maker” ensuring a robust, equitable public school system (p.218). In this model, government has five key roles to play in the market for schooling: accountability, access, transparency, engagement, and choice. Harris argues that by accomplishing these fundamental roles, government helps ensure that the public school system realizes key educational values. He posits four values that he argues are broadly seen as important and that offer a vantage point from which we can evaluate education policy: freedom, efficiency, equity, and community. According to Harris, Democratic Choice promises to serve as a reliable guide for policy makers looking to realize these four values.

Democratic Choice is Charter School City’s most novel contribution. By marrying rigorous empirical research with ethical reflection, Harris develops a powerful framework for helping policy makers think about issues related to school governance. Moreover, in blending research with engaged ethical analysis, he joins a growing group of education scholars working to support valuedriven education policy.1 This is a promising development. Hopefully, more education researchers and theorists will take up the call to produce actionguiding scholarship that combines ethical analysis with research. Importantly, however, Democratic Choice is not meant to offer a blueprint for redesigning school governance in the US. In fact, Harris notably makes the case that the traditional local school district, often bemoaned as a relic of the Progressive Era, can and in many cases does successfully carry out these five roles. Rather, Democratic Choice is meant to be a flexible research-backed and valueinformed framework to help guide education policy makers, not tell them precisely what to do.

All that said, I find myself left with a lingering question—Was education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans a success? Harris is careful on this point. As he writes in the book’s final paragraph, “My hope is that other cities and states will build on the New Orleans experience with a desire to copy not its design and process but its ambition and inventiveness” (p. 249). In particular, he argues that the failure of state leaders to engage the local community constituted a significant shortcoming of the reform effort. In fact, as he shows, the reformers didn’t simply fail to engage community members but actively preferred outsiders when choosing charter operators. As one leader admitted in an interview, “I confess that I did not really think about local [community members as] ‘producers’ or potential school leaders . . . I was like, I think I know what works. Let me bring it to you’” (p. 190). While Harris notes that some leaders ultimately regretted this approach, he concedes that others viewed it as a “necessary evil” in light of the historic dysfunction of OPSB (p. 190). Despite positive results for students along a number of related measures, Harris makes clear that the state and local governments responsible for schooling in New Orleans failed to fully realize the aims of Democratic Choice and were, therefore, less than fully successful.

I can’t help but imagine that some readers will find this answer unsatisfying. The fact that members of the New Orleans reform family were willing to admit openly, if only years later, that they actively viewed local community membership as disqualifying for meaningful school leadership may be evidence of racism, plain and simple. In fact, from this point of view, post-Katrina school reform in New Orleans might seem positively unjust. In light of the meaningful gains for students, these concerns point toward a difficult tension that Harris never fully resolves. Though he never says this explicitly, if pushed, I expect Harris would reject the “necessary evil” view and maintain that reformers in New Orleans could have achieved significantly greater transparency and engagement while still achieving significantly improved outcomes for students.

However, even if we grant this hypothetical response, a deeper question about the priority of different values remains. In particular, the value of active local participation in school politics seems to be in tension with the value of a quality education. How should we prioritize these competing priorities? This isn’t an idle question. Reformers across the country are considering policies like the replacement of locally elected school boards with appointed boards that, in part, trade active community engagement in education policy for improvements in the quality of education. In fairness, questions like these are largely beyond the intended scope of Harris’s book. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of them, because they reveal important areas for continued ethical reflection and analysis, underscoring the complexity of applying seemingly straightforward frameworks like Democratic Choice.

Ultimately, Charter School City offers an impressive and illuminating overview of the complex reform process that played out in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While not all readers will be convinced that Democratic Choice constitutes the proper role for government in schooling, Harris’s well-researched, carefully argued position is one we should all take seriously.


The most obvious recent counterpart is Brighouse, Ladd, Loeb, and Swift (2018), which, written by two philosophers and two economists, similarly offers education policy makers a framework designed to help make good decisions guided by both data and values.

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Educational goods: Values, evidence, and decision making
University of Chicago Press