Paul Greenberg

After Katrina, the sun shone again. Charter schools were created, competition was encouraged, standards raised. New schools blossomed. One of the more hopeful developments was the arrival of a horde of Teach for America graduates eager to take on a challenge that would have daunted others. These young people, not knowing it couldn't be done, did it. They brought a new vitality and emphasis on academic achievement to a completely reshaped school system.

But the deadwood is already growing back in ever-fecund New Orleans. The first thing those who miss the comfortable old inertia want to do is get rid of the new young teachers in town. They find these interlopers too ambitious, too hard-working, too well-educated. In short, too Yankee. They don't fit in. They disturb the peace, or rather the sub-tropical languor of the storied old city. They get things done and kids educated. They're just -- what's the current fad phrase? -- culturally incompetent.

Arne Duncan was right: If every cloud has a silver lining, a hurricane can shine like gold. And give even long-suffering New Orleans a chance to build a whole new and better public school system.

It's going to be interesting to see how far our president (and Chicago pol) is going to let his secretary of education go when it comes to real reform. Arne Duncan is a fan of charter schools. And he proposes to have the states compete for federal grants on the basis of educational quality and innovation, rather than just lining up for their usual handouts. And the president seems behind him on both counts. So far.

Mr. Duncan is a product of the Chicago machine, and so must know how this game is played: Talk about reform is just fine, but actual reform -- especially the kind that irritates the teachers' unions -- has its political limits.

Secretary Duncan may already have hit a dead end in Washington, where the administration's political indebtedness to the teachers' unions has killed a voucher program for the poor kids who need it most. And the secretary of education dares not defend the city's outspoken school superintendent, Michelle Rhee, as she takes on the forces of inertia in public education there.

Jonathan Swift said it: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." Will our secretary of education oppose so formidable and widespread a confederacy? And if he does, how long would he stay secretary of education in this administration?

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.