That was the daily grind for Valerie Evans in the years before school reform in New Orleans. But when a volunteer came and knocked on her door in summer 2008, she eagerly applied for a scholarship and her son Gabriel got a place at a private school using public dollars.
Now a teenager, Gabriel is happy, well-adjusted and on track to attend college.
That is the reality for thousands of New Orleanian parents. The school system is not perfect -- none is -- but their lives have been improved by the education reforms that we implemented after Hurricane Katrina.
And yet, on the anniversary of the storm, some on the left are trying to tear down those reforms. Worse, they are fabricating a narrative of racial discrimination.
Unfortunately for the chattering classes in New York and Washington, the inconvenient truth is that the United States of America does not provide equal opportunity in education, but the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana do.
In most of America, children are victims of a ZIP code lottery; their education depends on the social status of their parents. If you are born into a home in a good school district, or your parents can afford private school tuition, you'll be OK. If not, you are subject to whatever the government provides, good or bad.
Despite the ability for school choice to change this, the left fights to stop it, in the name of union special interests and on the spurious grounds that it will harm public education.
This is nonsense. The hypocrisy that the left perpetuates is this: Poor parents are not allowed school choice, but rich parents can buy it.
But not in New Orleans, not in Louisiana and not on my watch. Thanks to the reforms we passed, the dollars follow the child instead of the child following the dollars. That means every child has the opportunity to go to any school, regardless of geography or income.
Ninety-three percent of students in New Orleans attend charter schools -- the highest percentage in the nation -- and roughly 2,000 students attend private school on a publicly funded scholarship
That's because we created a publicly funded scholarship program for low income students, which we then expanded statewide; implemented a centralized enrollment system for all the types of choice in New Orleans called OneApp; and streamlined the charter application process.
The turnaround since 2005 shows a true Louisiana comeback:
-- Before Katrina, the percentage of New Orleans' students on grade level was 35%; now it's 63%
-- Before Katrina, only 32% of black students in New Orleans were at or above grade level, compared to 40% of black students statewide. Now, 59% of black students were at or above grade level
compared to 54% statewide.
-- Before Katrina, 64% of schools were considered failing
; now, about 11% are
, even though we have raised the bar for what constitutes failure several times since.
For students attending private schools on public dollars, almost all of whom arrived several years behind, their lives are being turned around. The percentage of students who are on grade level in third grade English grew by 20 percentage points and in math by 28 percentage points between 2008 and 2013.
Despite all this, the Obama administration's Justice Department sued the state of Louisiana, unsuccessfully, on the notion that our scholarship program may be racially discriminatory. I am not making that up.
Before they wasted everyone's time, someone should have told them that nearly 90% of children in the program are minority students
and all of them entered it voluntarily. A majority of educators in New Orleans are also minorities, as are more than half of school principals
. So are the majority of community volunteers on school boards
The fact is that big government liberals don't like competition, they don't like private provision of services and they definitely don't like conservative ideas that help minorities.
The biggest lesson of the New Orleans experience has nothing to do with the color of people's skin. It is that handing control of schools back to people on the ground is how you give children a better life.
Government had a monopoly on education in New Orleans, and it strangled educators with red tape, regulating how many minutes must be in the school day and whom to hire and how much to pay them. By empowering parents and educators, we broke that monopoly to allow them to make choices for their children and to teach how they want.
The New Orleans experience should serve as a reminder to conservatives that our ideas, based on free markets and competition, work. We should never give up on reforming education to improve lives.
The promise of the American dream is that the circumstances of your birth do not determine the outcomes of your life. For Louisianians like Gabriel Evans, that is more true today than at any other time in our history. It should be just as true for every American child.