APPEL: Regardless Of John White’s Fate, Louisiana Had Better Demand Results From K-12 Schools

Amid all the political controversy swirling around LDOE Superintendent John White, we are missing the significance of the fundamental problems that we seek to cure through public education. We already know that Louisiana is and has been last in virtually all measures of socioeconomic success. But we must remember that all of our societal failures are rooted in a state population that is to a great extent uneducated or undereducated by 21st century standards.

When it comes to quality public education for the citizens, for as long as records have been kept, Louisiana has suffered under a culture of failure.

We all know the story – when the oil patch was booming a kid could get a high-paying job without even finishing high school. In that part of the state education was viewed as unnecessary. In urban areas we are faced with a vicious cycle of bad schools, uneducated parents, parents who just didn’t see any value in education, broken homes, a lack of family discipline, and bad teachers and administrators. The sentiment in these areas became “why go to school, there are few jobs anyway, and abundant government assistance will take care of the people.” In rural, agrarian areas education was again viewed by parents who saw it as a low priority for life on the farm. In many of these poor parishes schools were never funded properly and high-quality teachers scarce. Finally, after desegregation, many of the parents who heretofore had been the product of public education abandoned it in favor of private education. These citizens to a great extent placed a high value on education and just did not want to risk the future of their children when they could afford a higher quality environment.

The result has been that many of the best and brightest do not attend public schools and their parents have become disinterested in the fate of the public school system.

Now I know that these statements are very broad and certainly there a many exceptions to them but in general they represent my belief about the underlying nature of our culture of failure. It comes from many sources and each must be addressed.

Starting in 2006, under Democrat governor Kathleen Blanco, the state finally had enough and ever so gingerly started down the road to changing things. This process was heavily augmented in 2012 under Republican governor Bobby Jindal’s nationally renowned education reform legislation that I was privileged to be both the author and the floor leader of. These reforms have been guided and built upon by Superintendent John White thus invoking the ire of the folks who believe that we should leave things just as they were, and therein lie the roots of the political morass surrounding his tenure.

Beyond the minutiae of what these bipartisan efforts were, the basis was always a fundamental desire to change our culture. Early on the management of the education process was vested in the authority of local school boards. The results have not been good. During the period up to 2012 the recognition by the legislature of the failure of this local governance model and that resulted in an ever growing, but never strategized, movement toward centralization of authority away from School Boards and to the Department of Education. Once John White became the state superintendent, he became the personalization of the change.

By 2012, and perhaps because of a lack of overarching strategy, it was clear that we were spending a huge amount of money and still not seeing good results. After the 2012 reforms, the pendulum swung away from state centralized authority over education toward a hybrid of a re-definition of the authority of local School Boards and a diminution of the size of the Department of Education. In that way the Department of Education has now become more of a policy, funding distribution, and accountability enforcement venue.

For us to ever break that culture of failure, under the 2012 model, School Boards are the key. They must achieve something that they have never truly achieved. They must become true managers of the education process and demonstrate that they can succeed. They must set goals and, more importantly, achieve them. Those goals must place quality education results for students above all else, and unfortunately that is something which has eluded us.

If education success is the Holy Grail and we are to achieve it, I see only two alternatives for our state. One is that School Boards, under the current hybrid model, must achieve success. If that doesn’t work and soon, we must design and execute a new model that minimizes or eliminates School Boards from education governance and have the state, whether led by John White or his successor, take over the duties that were once vested in School Boards. There are no other options.

As to K-12 education our Constitution is very clear but only on two points; the state is responsible for public education and it shall create School Boards. It is completely silent as to the authority, duties, functions, and responsibilities of those bodies. These matters are resolved by statute and can be changed very easily. Their resolution is more important than John White is to Louisiana’s educational future, regardless of what your opinion of his performance may be.

The constitutional obligation of the state is paramount, provide for the education of its citizens. If the several-hundred-year old model of traditional School Board governance continues to languish then we must look to another model.

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