There is no one in Louisiana who doesn’t know that teachers want a raise and that teacher unions were huge financial contributors to the governor. There is no one who doesn’t know that we have been ranked near the bottom in educational outcomes for as long as records have been kept. There is no one who doesn’t know that the proposed pay raise is not tied to success in outcomes and that teacher unions detest accountability. And finally there is no one who doesn’t know that these same unions despise parental choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools. They hate these options because they see them as a diversion of funds that could be used to pay teachers more and also, when successful, they make unionized traditional schools look really bad.
OK, I get all that, but what about educational outcomes for our kids? Nowhere in any of the discussion about a pay raise is that inconvenient truth even a footnote. As usual, we are overlooking the kids and focusing on grownup issues. Of course that is what the unions want and therefore that is what the governor delivers.
Louisiana’s public schools are heavily populated with kids that come from poverty and from families where educational attainments are low. So would a teacher pay raise have any impact upon these young lives? Perhaps in the very long run it would increase the availability of teachers, but in the short run, no effect should be expected whatsoever. So let’s just assume that politics will assure a raise and forget any nonsense that it will help kids. Does that mean that our children are doomed to remain poorly-educated in a time when education counts more than ever before as a precursor to future prosperity?
The answer lies in leadership.
First, let’s look at a little history. After 11 years of service on the Senate Education Committee I cannot think of one time when the unions, the school boards, or the superintendents ever brought forth any substantial education reform ideas. In fact, when the last governor reached out to them to join in his reform initiatives, they ran to the press to decry his efforts and then they did everything that they could to derail passage of his program.
Paradoxically it has always been the Republicans in the legislature that were the champions of demanding success through education reforms for our state’s mostly poor and minority kids. Democrat legislators, led by Governor Edwards in the House, always sided with the unions and were almost always against everything that was proposed. Republican efforts to help the poor and minorities are ironic, as those that are being helped almost always block-vote for Democrats. It makes one wonder why Republicans bother to be the undisputed champions of education improvement? There’s a simple answer, Republicans believe in this ancient proverb, even as Democrats believe in victimization and in keeping poor people tied to government largesse:
“Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.”
Based upon our unfortunate history and (except for rewarding his allies in the unions) the governor’s total lack of interest in education issues, we should not expect any movement toward the kind of effort that it will take to bring us to at least par with our southern peers.
But is that goal even possible, or are our kids just incapable of learning? Recognition of the status quo, really of failure, seems to be accepted by many as a forgone conclusion. Otherwise we would have heard a plan or something, anything, from the fourth floor or the education establishment. No, we have not heard even one idea on how to improve education.
But we should never lose sight that all of our children can and in some cases do learn! There are about 125 schools scattered throughout this state, schools in which the majority of their students are poverty stricken, that are rated as “A” schools. In other words poverty, though a serious impediment, does not assure failure.
Sadly we do not have leadership that demonstrates that education success for kids is a top priority. Case in point, it is universally accepted that any real increase in the success rate of educational outcomes, especially among the poor and minority kids, can only start with strong early childhood preparation. But, despite the campaign rhetoric that he sleeps with a teacher, our governor killed a $10 million early childhood appropriation last year that would have been a down payment on beginning to fulfill this desperate need. This year he totally disregarded kids by not including any funding at all for early childhood education in his recent Executive Budget proposal.
Unsurprisingly our governor emphasizes vote-getting pay raises, but doesn’t even allow a nickel for fundamental education for kids. It’s just beyond ironic that our Democrat governor cynically turns his back on his own Democrat base by ignoring poor kids, even as conservative Republicans fight him for their future.
What must we do? Well, this session is not yet begun so there is an opportunity to do the right thing and stand up for our most vulnerable children. Without a doubt the governor will succeed in paying back his union allies with a pay raise, but we demand that it be linked to the only state effort that actually will have an impact on children’s lives, Early Childhood Education. Teacher pay raises are fine and assure plenty of votes but we would be dishonest to ourselves if we allow him to fund pay increases for some at the expense of poor and minority children.
Louisiana’s children are not political toys that can be disregarded. They are our most precious commodity and our future. Early Childhood Education must surpass all other things as our top priority. Our kids can learn and the governor must not be allowed to use children as pawns; to ignore their silent but desperate cry for help.