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Stay the Course

August 17, 2015

By: Stephen Waguespack

While the national presidential race is capturing most of the media and public attention these days, followed closely in Louisiana by the gubernatorial and legislative races, one board’s elections this fall have not made the front page of many newspapers. In fact, polls indicate that familiarity with this board is usually less than 20 percent of the voting public. You may have never heard of it, and not know who represents you on it. However, the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, known as BESE, is critically important to students, parents, taxpayers, and Louisiana’s business community. BESE is an 11-member board, with eight seats elected by the voters of Louisiana’s eight BESE districts and three appointed by the governor. The board is responsible for creating education policies that have a direct classroom impact.

During the last election cycle, Louisiana’s business community made it a top priority to help elect a majority reform-oriented BESE so that more of our students would receive a quality education and be prepared for the workforce. That spirited campaign delivered a clear message of hope and progress to the people of this state and Louisiana’s voters responded loudly in that election that they wanted to put the needs of students first. The election results were a victory for reform-minded candidates and they have proven to be a victory for our students and parents for the last four years. Strides have been made and improvement has been felt thanks to the hard work of educators in the classroom and parents at home, as well as the strong leadership provided by the members of BESE. In fact, BESE’s policies over the past seven years have contributed greatly to some impressive student achievement gains.

For example:

  • In six years (2008-14), the percentage of students who scored at Basic or above on state tests increased by nine points, from 60 percent to 69 percent;
  • A record number of students completed high school on time – from 66 percent in 2008 to 74.6 percent in 2014, one of the fastest gains in the nation. Further, since 2008 the dropout rate has decreased from 7 percent to 4.5 percent;
  • Another top gain is the number of public high school graduates entering college – from 15,958 in 2008 to 22,972 in 2014
  • Astounding improvements are being realized in New Orleans, once Louisiana’s lowest achieving school district. The number of failing schools decreased from 117 in 2004 to eight in 2014. Additionally, the percentage of students scoring at Basic or above on state tests was raised from 37 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2014. The high school graduation rate there improved from 58 percent in 2008 to 72.7 percent in 2014.

Louisiana is finally coming out of the abyss of low educational achievement. This accomplishment has many contributors, including a BESE that is focused on student needs. With the belief that every student can graduate college or become career ready, BESE and the Legislature have expanded school choice, providing options that have never existed before in Louisiana public education.

For example, BESE policy has empowered students across Louisiana to take classes offered via Course Access. Because of this change, specific educational courses for children of all ages and demographics are now available in Louisiana. This past year alone, middle and high school students took over 19,000 courses via Course Access. Of these courses, 13,000 included dual enrollment courses, and 6,000 included courses not previously offered at the student’s school. New doors are opened every day to Louisiana students thanks to these policies.

For students more interested in technical training than traditional college prep coursework, BESE created Jump Start, a program that provides students with high-quality career and technical training that leads to industry-based certifications and helps the student become employed immediately upon graduation. Jump Start now has 47 career pathways that result in career diplomas with industry credentials. This program is opening up new career options and educational opportunities for students that previously slipped through the cracks. Finally, the system is aligning to put the needs of the student first.

This student-centered approach taken by BESE and many other educators is beginning to change the way we view ourselves. In the past, we only saw our limitations and generationally poor outcomes and assumed we could never reverse that low-performing legacy. Now, our educators, parents, students and community leaders are beginning to see the benefits of strategic partnerships and smart reforms, many of which BESE developed and implemented.

This election cycle is critical for many different races, but perhaps the most important election of them all is not on the radar of most people. Take the time to get educated on the issues and support candidates for BESE that pledge to keep Louisiana’s momentum going. Some candidates running for BESE aim to move away from reform policies and go back to the old days of prioritizing the needs of the adults in the system over those of the students in the classroom. Don’t take that bait.

We are on the right track and the faith Louisiana put into a reform-minded BESE board four years ago is paying off for our students. It didn’t happen by accident and improvement will not continue without a conscious effort.

Maintaining a BESE that is supportive of reform is critical to the ongoing progress of education in our state. It’s vitally important to elect the right BESE candidates this fall, as well as legislative candidates who will not retreat and constantly strive for a better way. We’ve come too far, gained too much, and have too much further to go to just turn back now.