I live in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 2004, the year before Hurricane Katrina, the public school system was in pretty bad shape. The state legislature passed a law allowing for the takeover of failing public schools. I didn’t realize until years later just how bad it was, but I could tell it was pretty bad. My firm was brought on to help with publicity and community engagement. The feeling was that the community, being mostly African American, would be averse to this takeover and wouldn’t like new charter schools. Instead, I think because the public schools were so bad, the charter schools were wildly embraced. That’s how I got into education reform. The longer I stayed involved, the more I learned about the movement and school choice.
“Instead, I think because the public schools were so bad, the charter schools were wildly embraced.”
At first, I resistant to school choice because of vouchers. A few years after Katrina there was talk in the news about the state doing a voucher program. One day, I’m watching the news and there’s a press conference with Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican governor, and he had all these black folks standing around talking about vouchers. I remember saying to myself, “you can’t take money from public schools to go to these private schools.” That was my attitude back in 2007.
Around that time, I remember seeing a documentary about the plight of the public school system in New Orleans. It was just awful, the things that were going on in the schools. There were indictments that happened right before Katrina, of people who worked in the school system. The FBI had set up an office in the school board office. That’s how bad it was. As time went on, I started actually engaging in conversation with people. After talking to a lot of parents, I realized that these parents can’t afford to wait for public schools to be fixed. If charter schools are going to be part of the solution, that’s great, but in the meantime why not give students and parents an opportunity to send their kids to a private school with state funds. That was the transition for me.
Then a few years later I was approached by former state Senator Ann Duplessis, who’s now on the AFC board. She said that AFC was looking for a Louisiana communications director. In fact, she actually approached my wife Monica first. She said, talk to Paul. She spoke with me and asked me If I had any problem with vouchers? At that point, I had evolved and was totally open to it. The rest, as they say, is history.
Why is school choice important to you and what does your work entail?
School choice is important because options are important. In Louisiana, we have a lot of choice and New Orleans has probably more choice than anywhere else in the state. In fact, we’re now an all charter system. Truly, even if you’re in a public charter school, you’re not relegated to your school by ZIP code. There’s something called OneApp where everybody can apply through a common application, but that’s not the case in the rest of the state. The rest of the state is still determined by ZIP code. It’s also determined, by effect, by income. That’s where the only flexibility is. People buy homes based on whether or not a school district is considered good or bad.
“School choice is important because options are important.”
If you don’t have that, then you don’t have a choice. Unfortunately, often that lack of choice and the ensuing poor education follows a child and actually becomes a generational issue with the inability to grow wealth across generations. That’s why it’s so important to have that freedom and flexibility to pick the school that you feel is not only a quality school, but that best fits your needs. When I say that I’m not talking just about being able to pick an A or B school, but the school that fits because a lot of times the letter grade in many states doesn’t tell the whole story about a school.
Is there anything else you want people to know about your story?
I look back at my past life and, you know, I grew up in the late sixties and seventies where I was basically growing up in an era moving from segregated schools to forced integration by law. As a fifth grader, my parents enrolled my sister and I into a predominantly white public school. They were allowing black students who didn’t live in that majority white district to pick a school and go to it, at least that’s what I thought at the time. I remember attending in the fifth grade, and I was one of maybe five African American students. So looking back, I thought, well, I was an early school choice kid. I was talking to my mother the other day and asked her and about it, and what she remembered was that we were actually assigned to that school. If that’s the case, maybe it wasn’t true school choice, but it was the beginning of trying to give kids more opportunities. So it’s an early school choice memory for me.