Anyone who thought the overhaul of public education in Louisiana is a done deal had better guess again. Bills are still awaiting action in the House and Senate that would make it easier for communities all across the state to form their own school districts.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, and Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, are sponsoring legislation that would drastically change the Legislature’s authority to “create parish school boards… .” The bills would delete the word “parish” and replace it with “create local public schools… .”
Recent events in East Baton Rouge Parish explain what happens when the power to create school districts is no longer done on a parish-wide basis. White is sponsoring legislation that would create a fifth school district in that parish. The bill passed the Senate 30-8 and is awaiting action in the House.
White told the Senate the new district is a response to pleas from mothers, fathers, students and others who have concluded that long-standing problems in the East Baton Rouge system demand a fresh start.
The proposed Southeast Baton Rouge Community School Board and school system would join independent systems in Baker, Zachary and Central Baton Rouge. The remaining areas of the parish would still be administered by the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
Seabaugh and White obviously believe what’s good for East Baton Rouge Parish is good for the rest of the state. It’s flawed thinking, of course, because situations are different in other parts of the state.
Can you imagine, for example, what would happen in Calcasieu Parish if Sulphur, Westlake, Moss Bluff or any other areas decided to strike out on their own in educating their children? A group in Sulphur gave creation of a school district there serious consideration in 2005, but the idea was dropped. And it was a wise decision.
Dual school systems are costly, and they can’t offer students the wellrounded curriculum that is available on a parish-wide basis. Lake Charles created a city school system in 1906, and it lasted 60 years. It merged with the Calcasieu Parish School System in 1967 after voters decided it was time to end the unnecessary duplication.
Monroe and Bogalusa have city school systems, the only other districts outside the current three in East Baton Rouge Parish.
If White’s constitutional amendment creating the Southeast district in EBR is approved by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature, the issue would be up for a statewide vote this fall. It would have to be approved statewide and in the parish. The legislation being advanced by Seabaugh and White would eliminate the need for statewide approval and require only approval in the parish and in the proposed district.
Desegregation changed the face of education in Louisiana and in the rest of the country, and that is one of the reasons cities and parts of some parishes want to form their own school districts. However, that wasn’t the case in Baker and Zachary since their student bodies were well-integrated when they were formed.
Whether that will be the case in the new district and for the 43,000 students left in the East Baton Rouge Parish district remains to be seen. Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the system, told The Advocate what she thinks about the new school district.
“What we are doing with this legislation is appeasing 15 percent to the peril of the remaining 85 percent,” Rutledge said.
Opponents of the bill said the new district would siphon funds away from some of the neediest, most atrisk public schools.
Bernard Taylor, the incoming superintendent for the EBR system, said, “You’ve got to look at the whole. When you start leaving children behind and start creating education safety zones, what happens when you don’t live in the most attractive neighborhoods?”
The Louisiana education establishment has had enough reform for the time being. Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have created student vouchers to help pay tuition at nonpublic schools, made it easier to create charter schools, diminished the power of local school boards, drastically overhauled the teacher tenure program, given rebates to individuals and corporations that donate funds for scholarships and established a new teacher evaluation system.
Maybe the situation in East Baton Rouge Parish is at the critical stage, and creating a fourth school district may be the best solution for that parish at this point in time. However, that isn’t the situation in most school districts in this state, and the Seabaugh and White bills are unnecessary.
A majority of legislators from Southwest Louisiana opposed most of the Jindal reform measures, saying they weren’t going to do anything to jeopardize what they consider to be excellent public education systems in the areas they represent. And that is exactly what might happen if it becomes too easy to create new school districts where they aren’t needed.
Educators have enough on their plate. They shouldn’t have to worry about parts of their parishes deciding to cut and run as an easy way out of tough situations.
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].