Education reform is overdue in Louisiana

“We’ve seen a race to the bottom. States are lying to children. They are lying to parents. They’re ignoring failure, and that’s unacceptable. We have to be fierce.”

That’s not Paul Pastorek, the Louisiana superintendent of education under attack for his efforts to improve school performance.

The statement in The New York Times came from Arne Duncan, former head of Chicago schools and now secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

The point of the comment, which with slight amendment could have come from Pastorek, is that the fierce battles on education reform do not break down along partisan lines.

Duncan, like Pastorek, is a school reformer who is willing to change the structures and focus of schools on behalf of student achievement. Pastorek says Louisiana is getting favorable attention around the country for its efforts to measure student performance – the focus of the past decade – and now to break the old molds to improve it, the “fierce” battles of today.

Those are similar to the battles Duncan fought in Chicago, and now have been given a new boost by President Barack Obama.

A $5 billion tab in the recent economic stimulus bill is focused on education. Pastorek said Louisiana will seek to apply for funds focusing on areas such as student achievement and identifying new talented teachers and getting them into classrooms where they are needed the most.

At the Press Club of Baton Rouge, Pastorek applauded Obama’s support for charter schools – public schools that are allowed to innovate through independent boards and freedom from restrictive bureaucratic supervision.

He cited several successful charter schools in New Orleans, formed since hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

One of those schools, the old McDonough 15 in the heart of the city, is an elementary school full of poor children that is now almost up to the 10-year goal of student achievement – after only two years as a charter school.

“Don’t tell me you can’t do well with poor children,” Pastorek said. “Don’t tell me you can’t find great results with charter schools if you choose a high-quality provider.

“The challenge in Louisiana is to go out and explore the alternatives.”

With little amendment, you could hear Duncan – or Obama – say the same.

– The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.