APPEL: Don’t Blame COVID Or Ida For Louisiana’s Education Problems

You have seen it. The reports of how the storms and COVID have seriously hurt the education of Louisiana’s students. You couldn’t miss it, it’s all over the news.

Wake up Louisiana, while the disasters have had their way with us, the real damage to Louisiana’s future citizens has resulted from years of neglect by none other than us. A year or two of disruption is bad, but what we have allowed to happen to our children is the real disaster.
After serving eleven years on the Senate Education Committee some things are abundantly clear. First and foremost, our people and politicians are quick to give lip service to the importance of education, but they are nowhere to be found when the conversation turns to the long past due need for a major reimagination of the system of education.

Second, in those years not once did anyone from the school boards, the superintendents, or the teachers’ unions, those to whom we have entrusted our future, bring forth any substantive proposals to correct the injustice of low-quality educational outcomes. Oh, they were always quick to demand more money, but when confronted with the fact that states with far superior outcomes were funding education at much lower levels, the only response was silence.

Third, we are a broken society. A society in which it has been reported that 72% of black kids are born into fatherless homes. A society in which education was not of major importance because all one had to do was survive a few years of high school in order to get a well-paid job in the oil patch. A society in which parents really want their kids to succeed, but discipline and ambition die on the altar of the good life.

Fourth, we have not had political leadership with the vision of what a well-educated population could mean to us, nor in order to make a difference have they had the political courage to stand up to the Education Establishment. Bobby Jindal actually understood that and for a year tried to make a difference, but soon enough his political ambitions caught up to him and we know the outcome of that.

Other than Jindal’s brief flirtation with reform all of our leaders have willingly deferred education to the Establishment, but those folks have always been more interested in their own welfare than in tackling the explosive issues that have left our kids with low expectations. In other words, our leaders have given us what we wanted to hear, but then retreated to a safe place.

So let me take a stab at what I would suggest. Let’s start with blowing up the education governance part of our system. Let’s reimagine the role and qualifications for school boards. We are after all one state and yet we look to school boards as if they are separate fiefdoms yet funded heavily by the whole state. Then let’s look at the way the school boards interact with the BESE Board and Department of Education. There are 750,000 public school students in Louisiana, but we act as if those across the state from ours don’t matter. We are one ship, and the rising tide lifts all.

Next let’s address accountability. Teachers are clearly the key to quality education. But we don’t demand enough from teachers. In the Jindal years we tried to eliminate lifetime tenure (a practice under which a teacher can almost never be terminated for poor results). A decade later I doubt that many if any teachers have lost tenure for bad outcomes. That needs to end.

We must pay teachers enough to attract those that would consider other vocations, the best and brightest. We must implement accountability on superintendents and school boards and use sanctions that hurt them not the students to emplace discipline. Finally, we must find a way to minimize the very negative effects that the unions have. I am not against unions when they represent specific “adult” issues of teachers, but today they have far too much political influence and they offer nothing to help children.

Finally, we must allow parents to choose where to send their kids and let state funds follow those kids. Part of that is that if a school accepts state funds, then it must submit to public accountability of outcomes for all of its students. There are limited non-traditional public schools in our state so this will not too much impact on traditional school populations. But by having a completely open book on all schools we can insert competition into the process and that will be good for all.

There are many more ideas that I have but let me close with what I consider the most important. Our kids have been far behind those in other states for generations. There may be only one way change our trajectory. Going back to the times when Louisiana was an agrarian state and schools had no air conditioning, we closed school for the summer. Those days are long gone. If we are ever to make an impact, we must stop repeating what is clearly not necessary nor working. We must implement year around education. That may be the change that has the most potential impact on the future of our children and our state.

Without generational change we cannot overcome our broken society. But at the same time we can’t allow the politics of the status quo destroy generation after generation.

The storms and epidemic were bad, but the absurdity of what we have subjected our young too is far worse. We can change all that, but it takes courage and a willingness to abandon that which isn’t working, replacing it with bold new strategies. Will we ever find the willpower to undertake these initiatives? Who knows, but if we don’t, we clearly know the history that will be written about our future and it isn’t pretty.

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