It’s a sad fact of life in Louisiana that for far too long our education system has been a disgrace. Year after year we rank at or near the bottom in national education studies.1
It’s a problem that has persisted for years and it’s reflected in our past record:
Nearly half of Louisiana schools rated as failing in 2011 – 44%2
So how did we get here? For years there was no accountability in our schools. No way for parents to know, other than talking to their neighbors, what kind of an education their children would receive at their local school. Years of fraud, corruption and mismanagement diverted money from the classroom into the pockets of unscrupulous contractors and employees.4 Cheating, irregularities and infractions in an attempt to subvert standardized testing made news across the state.5 And prior to high-stakes testing, social promotion was the norm – promoting a child to the next grade level regardless of their education level – passing them on and guaranteeing future failure.
One of the worst dropout rates in the nation – 23% overall, 29% for African American students3
The control of schools seemed to be in the hands of the union bosses and the politicians. Campaign contributions from the top three teachers’ unions reached an all-time high of $33.2 million during the last political cycle. Tenured teachers were untouchable despite their on-the-job performance. Education per pupil continued to grow, but there were no results to show.6
Two events marked the turning of the tide in Louisiana education. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina roared through the New Orleans area decimating schools and transplanting thousands of students and teachers. When the city began to recover, the race to open schools allowed a restructuring of the school system in the absence of many of the former political stakeholders. The other event was the election of Bobby Jindal. Despite all the criticism of Governor Jindal, his education reform agenda pushed three sweeping bills through the legislature that changed the way public schools operate in Louisiana.7
Tenure was overhauled and teachers were held accountable. Vouchers were expanded statewide, Charter schools expanded and teacher evaluations were mandated. Schools received letter grades to allow parents more transparency in choosing where their child received an education. Vouchers allowed children to escape failing schools and the money followed the child. The reforms ensured accountability, transparency and gave far more power to the parent.
Despite opposition from unions and the education establishment8, the changes to Louisiana’s education system received national acclaim9.
The exciting news is that the reforms are working and real progress is being seen. Louisiana education officials say the latest performance scores for public schools and public school districts show improvements in “nearly every measure of academic progress.”10 Standardized test scores, ACT scores, graduation rates and advanced placement credits earned all increased. In fact, in 2016 Louisiana’s graduation rate reached an all-time high of 77.5 percent. Louisiana raised its graduation rate 10.3 percent in the past five years, outpacing the nation’s growth of 4.6 percent.
But opposition to reform still remained. The teachers’ unions used their political clout to back a candidate for governor who made it publicly known which side he favors. “I get painted as a person who is close to teachers’ unions,” said Edwards, while appearing on stage with a leader of the National Education Association. “I’m not going to distance myself.” And Debbie Meaux, President of the Louisiana Association of Educators said, ”It’s not every day that education can say we have a champion in the Governor’s Mansion, but today we certainly do.” Both local and national unions contributed heavily to Edwards and super PACs associated with his campaign, including $100,000 from the American Federation of Teachers.11
Governor Edwards has spoken publicly about his opposition to many of the existing education reforms and his desire to roll back reforms through his policies.
The governor’s task force has recommended dropping letter grades for public schools12-a reform that helps parents judge the effectiveness of their school and making the schools more accountable.
Despite promises Edwards made about the school voucher program during his campaign, he has put a proposal on the table that would slash funding for the scholarship program and leave nearly 1,000 students desperately looking for a school that wasn’t failing.13
Parents are upset that Edwards has broken his promise and are responding angrily to the proposed cut. A commercial aired featuring three moms with children enrolled in private schools that participate in the scholarship program. One of them says pointblank; Governor Edwards “lied to me, he lied to my child.”14
At a time when the economy of Louisiana is floundering, Governor Edwards’ policies will turn back the clock on an education system that is just beginning to show improvement.
At a time when the economy of Louisiana is floundering, Governor Edwards’ policies will turn back the clock on an education system that is just beginning to show improvement. It’s a dangerous move that will impact both impoverished communities with struggling schools and prosperous suburban areas where the schools are thriving. Every neighborhood should care because the negative effects of a poorly educated population ripple through every aspect of life in Louisiana. Economic studies show that the key to prosperity in a state is a well-educated workforce. Businesses don’t choose to locate in Louisiana because we can’t provide the kind of workers they need. Uneducated workers can’t find jobs and are more likely to depend on public assistance, driving up taxes. Lower levels of education also correspond to poor health and higher rates of crime — both problems that plague Louisiana.15
It’s time for Governor Edwards to put the children and parents of Louisiana first and prioritize their concerns above those of the union bosses. When it comes to education and the economy, Louisiana simply cannot afford to be last anymore.