Education, Legislature face off; who really won?

The words “it could have been worse” applied to legislative support of education in Louisiana bring little comfort to those who are affected by our schools and colleges, i.e. every Louisiana citizen – now and, especially, in the future.

Every failure to move forward toward supporting and increasing educational opportunity is a step backward for a state that has lagged behind for way too long. That fact makes it all the more depressing to hear words of thanks following the 2009 legislative session for a Minimum Foundation Program for K-12 that stayed at the same level as last year and “just an 8 percent cut” to higher education.

Other education items from the session that we are particularly “unthankful” for include:

• The reduction of cuts to higher education to a little over 8 percent – from an earlier estimated 15 percent – offered some less-bad news. However, it was made possible by the use of one-time, federal stimulus dollars, meaning potential cuts will be even more drastic once the stimulus funds end in 2011.

• Meaningful school board reform was stymied. A promising proposal to limit school boards’ influence on superintendents was defeated.

• Despite good intentions to decrease high school dropout rates, the newly approved, lower-standard career diploma slices away at accountability and it fails to offer sufficient courses to allow a career-option graduate to get into college.

• In exempting one failing school from state takeover, lawmakers may have opened a spigot of similar requests. Let’s hope for a veto from the governor. HB495 exempted Aiken School, an alternative campus in Rapides Parish, from the same fate of two Caddo Parish middle schools that will open as charter operations this fall. We agree with the Council for a Better Louisiana that the bill undermines the accountability program by setting a terrible precedent “that we will come to regret.”

• Once again, policymakers failed to bring forward a constitutional amendment that would temper many of the currently protected state budgets and allow cuts to be spread more evenly. Higher education and health care remain the vulnerable areas where cuts can be made.

So what’s a state to do with an estimated $1 billion shortfall and future dire revenue predictions? Even as lawmakers make today’s difficult decisions, they must consider more investments in our citizens with an eye toward the long term. Lacking that, our state is destined to remain mired in poverty, social woes and outmigration while losing jobs, business and industries to states with more highly educated citizenries.

Even companies in the throes of bankruptcy are looking to push resources toward new ventures that will change their fates. In Louisiana, that all-saving venture, that answer to a downward spiral, is a skilled and educated population. It is the engine that will drive a successful future and solve so many of our state’s ills.

Virtually all cuts to education increase the angle of that slippery slope leading upward to educational attainment, career success and societal benefit. Let’s not slide any further back.

– The Times, Shreveport, La.