One of the main reasons that Louisiana has never realized its full potential, both in economic growth and quality of life for our citizens, has been due to the state’s traditionally poor public education system. Though great strides and improvements have been made over the last decade, the state still ranks 47th in the nation for student academic achievement. Recently, letter grades were assigned to public schools, and 44 percent received either a “D” or “F” grade, in a system using a relatively low standard. The data clearly show that the system serves some, but not all, students. Many citizens have given up on public schools and bailed out of the system, often leaving only those who cannot afford other options in failing schools. Too many of those students face limited opportunities for the future.
An alliance of education reform supporters has been working for some time to re-create the focus of public education. Their goal is to transform an inefficient and outdated model of providing education into a delivery system that can meet the needs of students, parents, and employers. Their mission is driven by the simple idea: students’ needs come first.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has recently embarked on meetings with stakeholders to listen to ideas about how schools can be transformed to maximize the potential of students. On January 17, the governor addressed the annual meeting of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) and unveiled his “Education Reform Plan to Empower Parents, Teachers and School Leaders.”
His remarks were enthusiastically received. When the legislative session begins on March 12, legislators will be considering the most ambitious education reform plan proposed in the nation. It encompasses additional school choices for parents in a number of creative ways: revamping teacher salary structures so excellent teachers can be rewarded; making teacher tenure an earned benefit as opposed to receiving it just because the teacher has been on the job for three years; local school district governance changes that give superintendents flexibility in hiring and firing; allowing principals to choose their own staffs; and restructuring early childhood programs to streamline operations so more children can be enrolled. It’s a complicated, multi-faceted plan which, if fully enacted and implemented with fidelity, could change our state forever. The only way out of poverty is education, and the governor is handing the Legislature an opportunity to make a sea change in the direction of our state.
It won’t be easy. Nothing worth doing ever is. Opponents who are concerned with protecting adult jobs and benefits at any cost are already spreading fear and misinformation. One of their main targets is the provision that, after three years of being rated as an ineffective teacher (with assistance for improvement provided during that interval), a teacher could be dismissed. Is it not fair to ask that teachers, after receiving mandatory courses for improvement and substantial remediation, achieve basic skill levels after three years? Good teachers, who have to pick up the slack for the poor performing ones, should cheer this legislation.
Legislators will soon be asked to make difficult votes. Almost every legislator runs on a platform of improving public education. They now have a chance to actually do it. They can embrace their part in changing Louisiana’s history, or join the status quo forces who equate education reform only with the amount of money spent. It’s time to act.