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Back in the Saddle Again

August 17, 2018

By: Stephen Waguespack

And so, it begins again. 

Summer has ended, and a new Louisiana school year has begun. The early morning sound of alarm clocks and the sight of sleepy kids slowly walking into the kitchen each morning is filling households across the state.

Everyone is unfortunately quite familiar with the low performance rankings that have described our state’s educational system for decades. This is a long-term problem that simply must be solved if we truly hope to ever reach our state’s awesome potential. For far too long, Louisiana has failed to provide the level of quality education that our children, parents and employers all deserve. However, there are some signs that progress is slowly being made.

Thankfully, more parents are being given options to choose the best school for their children than ever before. Of the more than 690,000 students attending the state’s public schools, some 80,000 children choose to attend a public charter school in Louisiana. Another 6,600 choose to attend a state-approved private school using a state scholarship and another 2,000 do so via the tuition donation credit program. All of these programs either utilize existing public education MFP dollars or separate programs that end up reducing the need for additional MFP dollars. For families not lucky enough to be zoned for one of the state’s high performing public schools achieving educational gains, these options are critical. And the more these choices are made by parents seeking educational opportunities for their children, the more Louisiana’s taxpayers win.

And the choices available to families are getting more exciting by the day.

The New Orleans public school system has literally been completely reborn in the last decade due to parental choice and a targeted recruitment effort for high quality charter operators and teachers. In fact, the New York Times last month described the progress in the New Orleans school system since Hurricane Katrina as “remarkable.” They went on to say, “Performance on every kind of standardized test has surged. Before the storm, New Orleans students scored far below the Louisiana average on reading, math, science and social studies. Today, they hover near the state average, despite living amid much more poverty. Nationally, the average New Orleans student has moved to the 37th percentile of math and reading scores, from the 22nd percentile pre-Katrina.”

In Baton Rouge, new nationally-respected operators are coming into the area and parents are responding. Basis and IDEA are just two of the new high-quality entrants in the area (joining a growing chorus of other public and private innovative schools), while on-line options like University View Academy are providing curriculum across the state to help meet specific needs of families in an easy to adopt manner. Other areas of the state are beginning to follow suit.

Acadiana’s charter landscape is growing as well, thanks in part to a reform-minded school board in Lafayette and an engaged business community throughout the region. For instance, if you have not yet heard of TM Landry College Prep in Breaux Bridge, do yourself a favor and check out this link: . This independent private school supported by business investment is absolutely rocking the establishment’s stale view on what expectations should realistically be set for children. In doing so, they’re driving a level of performance we have not seen before in this state, thanks to the hard work, passion and the limitless drive of their students and school founders Mike and Tracey Landry.

Schools across this state are starting to prove that a good education can come in many forms and the money is there to provide a higher quality product. The state spent $3.7 billion last year in the public school MFP funding formula, and when federal and local dollars are factored in, the total reaches upwards of $8 billion. Each year, more of those dollars are going to innovative education delivery models chosen by parents, a trend that must continue if we want families to make decisions that work best for them rather than bureaucrats almost exclusively focused on legacy delivery models of yesteryear.

A good education must start early to pave the way for future success. Research has shown that early education is absolutely critical for a student’s overall development. There has been much discussion about the need for a higher quantity of early childhood options, but quality is just as important. While Head Start, child care and pre-k programs are generally overseen by the same state agency, at the local level there is a growing need for enhanced support of these priorities and more efficient prioritization of which local programs work best. The dollars must be targeted on high performing operators with proven success rather than spread thin and diluted amongst a host of unproven models.

In addition to improving the early days of education, we must not forget the final ones either. For too long, employers across the state have struggled to find a capable workforce and, tragically, have defined that as the need for workers who can read, write, stay drug-free and have good soft skills. We must do better in preparing our children for the Louisiana jobs of today AND tomorrow. Some strides have been made in career education in our high schools, but students still need much more real-world job experience and career counseling while there. Louisiana should expand the focus of school counseling to also connect students directly with workforce training and jobs. Also, initiatives like the Jump Start Summers pilot program, which helps students attend industry-based classes, earn an industry credential, and experience an internship with a Louisiana employer, are a model for replication. This type of partnership between state and local educators and industry has been a long time coming.

Louisiana’s education system has its challenges and we all know we have a long way to go. But there are signs of life out there that we are on a path to improvement. Providing more choice to families who have for too long been stuck in failing schools, bringing in new innovative providers to meet the demand of families, focusing on quality early education to build a solid foundation and connecting the dots between relevant training and available jobs are all critical to turning around our system in a way that best meets the needs of our students. 

Getting back to the school routine is tough for all of us. But we are on the right path… now we just have to stay the course.