APPEL: Should John Bel Edwards Bear Some Blame For Louisiana’s Stagnant Performance In Education?

To say the least yesterday’s release of LEAP test results was disappointing. It’s been ten years since, at the state policy level, Louisiana implemented some of the strongest education reforms in the nation. For a time the results of those reforms seemed to indicate outcome improvement, but surely by now we would see much stronger results?

Despite all of his faults, and they were many, Governor Jindal initially had a passion and commitment to improve education outcomes for our children. He did until he caught Potomac fever and cast his fate and that of our state aside with his meaningless quest for presidential primary glory. And since his fall from grace, the education status quo folks right here in Louisiana have quietly impeded and undermined all of the implementation of his vision.

But, at least for that short time, Jindal tried. Governor Edwards on the other hand has done nothing for education, unless one considers pouring more money into a system that clearly is broken with no corresponding demand for better results. Perhaps the worst side of the Edwards years will be his “promise” to address education, the validity of which he assured us was backed up by his co-habitation with a teacher. Nah, nothing, nada, zero.

We haven’t heard one word about reform, accountability, or the kids; only the usual drivel that we just don’t spend enough (even though per student we have been one of the highest spending states in the south).

Now there is one major point that we must be aware of. The LEAP tests are taken only by children in public schools (with some voucher kids included). The simple fact is that, in many areas of our state, more affluent families don’t send their children to public schools. The other fact is that children who do attend public schools generally start with far less preparation and come from far less educated families than do the non-public school kids. This distorts the results of LEAP scores.

But even distorted we should see a trend among those who do attend public schools and the only trend seems to be flat. In New Orleans, a city that before Katrina had the distinction of having one of the worst and most corrupt school systems anywhere, there was initially a significant upward trend when the old system was replaced in favor of an all charter system. But there too scores have flattened out.

Now one could say that our poorer children just can’t learn and are doomed to never achieve educational success. The problem with that argument is that there are more than 125 geographically scattered schools in our state that achieve high results despite drawing from very poor families. So the argument that poor kids can’t learn fails.

So where else do we look? Well, our schools are organized much like a major corporation. There is a senior board (BESE) that sets general policy and then there are the Districts (school boards) that are to execute those policies. But School Boards are independent of the state and so unlike a corporation there is no-one, other than voters, to hold the Districts accountable. And I maintain that history has shown that short of open corruption or the demand for huge tax increases, voters don’t know what is going on in their Districts or worse, they don’t care. Perhaps the basic structure of education governance is the core problem that could be addressed, but it is a volatile issue and politicians who care only about their own re-election won’t go near it.
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I am sure that there are many core problems but what I do know for sure is that other states achieve far greater success with the same poor children as we have and far less spending. That says a lot.

I guess it is getting to be a cliché, but elections do matter. If our next governor cares as little about the future of our children as the present one then I see no hope to change our path. I also believe that there are answers but they reside in bold initiative and commitment, something we always seem to lack in our leaders.

So once again I beg, for the sake of the children, that voters pay attention to candidates and do not just accept what they say. Look deep into their record and their policies. Look deep into who supports them and realize that they absolutely will follow the money or the political support given by their devotees, whether in education or other policy.

Yes its a cliché, but the future of Louisiana rides with the decision of the voters.

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