Calcasieu Parish teachers staged a protest here Tuesday on the Capitol steps, and the legislators who represent them were aware of their presence. Unfortunately, most of the lawmakers who last week approved education reform bills that teachers don’t like hardly noticed they were here.
Democratic legislators who actively, but unsuccessfully, opposed the reforms pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal seized the moment, along with the Louisiana Federation of Teachers that helped stage the rally. I was there in an effort to help the teachers tell their story to the folks back home, but spent most of the morning fielding complaints about an American Press editorial that was critical of teachers leaving their classrooms.
That’s OK, though. I have had a lot of experience defending the newspaper and editorial comments over the last half-century. We know there will always be others out there who won’t agree with our opinions, but that’s the beauty of the democratic process. And I suggested Tuesday that the teachers who are upset write letters to the editor expressing their outrage.
Teachers I spoke with said education reform has to be a three-way effort. They said teachers, students and parents all have to be involved, and they are right. However, teachers have to play a role in getting parents to understand their everyday classroom problems, and I’m not sure they are all doing that.
I know parents at individual schools do support teachers. They demonstrate that often. But there are a lot of adults and other parents out there who believe Jindal and legislators are on the right track. They are unhappy with the education system. Polls have shown that time and time again, and the state’s low education rankings fuel the discontent out there.
Protests do sometimes achieve results, but Tuesday’s fell short of that goal. There are better ways for teachers to tell their stories, and I learned about one of them after Tuesday’s protest ended.
The most successful dialogue occurred between legislators and small groups of teachers. Sens. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, and Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, and Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, talked about those smaller exchanges.
“They were very professional and had some legitimate concerns,” Johns said. “I am listening to them and share some of their concerns.”
Morrish said he met with about 15 teachers in his office and spoke with dozens of others during the day. He said they have some real concerns about local funding, charters, whether traditional public schools are on a level playing field under the reform plans and online schools.
Kleckley said he and John White, state superintendent of education, met with a small group and explained the legislation.
“They asked good questions and they got good answers,” Kleckley said. “I think they were satisfied with the answers.”
Michelle Brown, a teacher at Barbe and Sulphur high schools, said after the meeting with Kleckley she came away with a positive attitude toward the changes, but still has some concerns. The group didn’t agree with everything that is being done through the reform legislation, but Brown said she appreciated the open dialogue.
I kept reminding teachers that six of the nine state representatives from Southwest Louisiana voted against the school voucher and teacher tenure bills that have passed the House. That is probably a bigger percentage in their camp than teachers have in any other region of the state.
However, the fact they opposed the legislation doesn’t mean legislators from our corner of the state don’t support education reform. They simply question whether the bills now on the table will get the job done. They, too, aren’t happy with the low school performance scores and the $1 billion being spent every year on failing schools.
Southwest Louisiana schools are doing a good job, but the Legislature has to look at the state as a whole. There has to be a way to bring all schools up to par. That is what legislators from our area want to see happen. They just don’t think the reform bills in their current posture will get the job done.
If there is anything wrong with Jindal’s reform movement, it is the unnecessary speed with which it was being pushed. Indications are the state Senate is going to take a more even and deliberate approach to education reform, and that serves everyone’s best interests.
Efforts being expended to recall Jindal and Kleckley, who voted for the reform bills, and last-minute protests aren’t the solution to what ails Louisiana education. The times call for serious deliberations and a willingness of all sides to sit down and consider the views of everyone involved in the process.
Small groups of teachers tried that here Tuesday, and proved it’s the right way to proceed.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].