WAGUESPACK: All Politics, And Education, Is Local

All politics is local.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil coined this well-known phrase when he entered the political arena in 1935, and it continues to serve American politics to this day as the core principle for any elected official who strives to effectively represent the voters who put him/her in office. Simply put, if politicians start to overlook the everyday concerns of those who elect them into office their chance for political survival gets bleak in a hurry. Ask any elected official that surprisingly lost their seat over the years, and they will likely point to a moment or two when they first began to lose focus on representing the people that sent them there.

Elections matter and this fall, voters across Louisiana will flock (meander is more likely) to the ballot box to cast their vote in high-profile contests that will have significant ramifications on our Congressional delegation. They will also consider several proposed Constitutional Amendments that have the potential to make substantive changes to Louisiana’s guiding document. Many of these candidates will be thoroughly scrubbed and several of these amendments will be effectively advertised in the months leading up to Election Day on November 4.

Without diminishing the importance of these candidates and initiatives, Louisiana voters will also see numerous local office elections this fall that, while much less discussed, will in many ways have a much larger local impact. No example of this reality is more obvious than the impact some local school board elections currently simmering below the radar can have on Louisiana’s public schools that have ranked much too low for far too long.

In Jefferson Parish, the public school district has made significant gains in the last few years, according to a report by GCR Inc. that analyzed state testing and performance data. The report states that, “Recent statistics indicate that schools and students in Jefferson Parish are unequivocally higher performing than they were three years ago, and the district’s progress is outpacing statewide gains.”

The report shows the district has a 19 percent increase in the State District Performance Score, rising graduation rates and an increase in the average ACT score that outpaced state and national increases, despite a steady rise in its free and reduced lunch population (a common measure of poverty).

Undeterred by this improvement, the Jefferson Federation of Teachers is targeting several school board members this election season and putting together an aggressive effort to unseat some of the reform-minded votes on that Board.

While common sense would tell you these scores increases mean that, district wide, more students are now attending improving schools, it appears the local union leadership views these improvements as a reason to attack. How local voters view this upcoming local election will have a significant impact on the future of Jefferson Parish schools and the thousands of kids that depend on the system for a quality education.

On an entirely different level, elections for the East Baton Rouge Parish school board will be some of the most important races the Capital City has seen in decades. The Board recently voted to decrease the number of members from 11 to 9 and redraw certain district lines, saying that a smaller board will be much more efficient and focused.

The ability to focus on what matters in the next few months may be a good idea since the Board has spent a considerable amount of time this year answering questions from the Department of Education, the Office of the Legislative Auditor, and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on issues surrounding the accuracy of certain student grades and test results. While the questions are not yet fully answered, the legislative auditor just released a report saying the district should rely more heavily on electronic student records rather than paper records since the handling of paper records varied greatly from school to school.

In addition to the questions pertaining to the handling of student records, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System continues to face heavy competition from neighboring districts that are much more successful on school and student performance scores. Additionally, the Board is preparing to commence a search for its new superintendent, which will be the fourth superintendent since 2009. Hiring an effective leader that can improve school district performance, compete with high-quality neighboring districts, resolve any lingering issues pertaining to the handling of student data, and end the revolving door of superintendents will be critical to that area. It all starts with local voters electing a strong local school board.

These are just two of many local school board elections that will make a huge impact on the local communities they serve. Lafayette is in the middle of a power struggle between school board members wanting more control and a hard-charging superintendent who wants to shake up the system, while Monroe’s school board decided earlier this year on a razor thin margin to not unionize its teachers, a narrow vote that will surely attract the ire of the unions next election.

If all politics is local, then all education is even more so. How we effectively educate our kids is one of the more important things we can do and it starts with electing responsible adults that put the needs of children first.

This fall, don’t forget to focus on your local school board elections and support candidates that are committed to improving the quality of education in our schools. Your local schools can only improve if you make it happen with your vote. It doesn’t get more local than that.

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