By Stephen Waguespack
There is potentially no more important issue in Louisiana than improving our educational system, yet this is not getting the attention it deserves in the governor’s race.
Decades of poor educational outcomes have contributed to our chronic challenges with generational poverty, crime, poor health habits, an under-developed workforce, and slow economic growth. As we prudently debate the current challenge of our state budget and how best to balance it, the critical need to provide our kids with a quality education is the unequivocal 800-pound gorilla holding Louisiana back.
Last week, the state released letter grades and school performance scores for Louisiana high schools. The scores generally showed progress in many parts of the state, while also serving as a reminder of how far we still have to go to deliver the educational outcomes our students deserve.
For many in New Orleans, the scores served as a vindication of the progress made over the last decade to turn around that city’s educational system. In fact, political leaders, education reformers and other civic activists in the New Orleans area praised the results and rightly so.
On the day of the release, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, "This is truly a remarkable day for the City of New Orleans. New Orleans has become a model for education reform, and today's announcement is an indication that those reforms have elevated student achievements. I applaud our leaders, teachers and parents for welcoming the opportunity to transform our approach to education. I also want to commend our students for raising the bar and setting an example for the rest of the country to follow."
Half of New Orleans high schools received a letter grade of A or B this year, though there were only two receiving that grade five years ago. The data show that four of the 10 most improved high schools in the state are in New Orleans. For the first time, there are no longer any non-alternative failing high schools in the city. Think about this remarkable progress for a moment.
Nearly 73 percent of New Orleans students are graduating in four years, a 19 percent increase since 2004. African-American males in New Orleans have a graduation rate of roughly 65 percent, which is higher than the national average. Fifty-nine percent of New Orleans high school students from last year’s graduating class have enrolled in college.
This startling success is coming to young people that, over the years, statistically have been the hardest for Louisiana to educate. New Orleans high schools are performing at roughly the state average, despite having the 12th highest poverty rate in the state. Many of these students are entering these schools educationally behind similar-aged students around the state, though they are showing they are up to the challenge.
The Education Research Alliance (ERA) at Tulane University studied the results of New Orleans high schools and remarked, "We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time."
The educational reform movement is alive and well in New Orleans and the city has become a hotbed for high-quality charter operators; parental choice; accountability; improved letter grades; Teach for America-trained educators; and productive collaboration with the Recovery School District. Numerous other cities around the nation are taking notice of this exciting reform environment and pointing to New Orleans as a success story to emulate and learn from.
All of which makes it so surprising that many in New Orleans are working to elect a governor who is absolutely focused on reversing all those reforms.
As a state legislator, John Bel Edwards has aggressively opposed any change to the traditional educational system every step of the way.
In 2008, he voted against school choice legislation proposed by a New Orleans area legislator that provided educational options for roughly 1,500 low-income New Orleans area students and parents. In 2009, Rep. Edwards opposed legislation aimed at preventing the micromanagement of school superintendents by school board members. In 2010, he voted against a bill to allow voters the option of placing 12-year term limits on local school board members and opposed legislation to give local school districts similar autonomy to charter schools. In 2011, he opposed a bill to allow local employers to partner with local districts to start a charter school and another bill to make it easier for businesses and individuals to make donations that provide scholarships for low-income students to attend nonpublic schools.
In 2012, Edwards led the opposition to virtually every education reform bill proposed that session. He aggressively fought against the following bills to:
- Once again attempt to allow voters to determine term limits for school boards,
- Repeal bus driver tenure in Louisiana (the only state in the nation with this protection),
- Link teacher tenure to performance, empower local superintendents, and
- Expand school choice to low-income students throughout Louisiana.
In 2013, Edwards voted to delay the implementation of teacher evaluations. In 2014, he voted to politicize the state superintendent of education position by trying to make it an elected position and offered an amendment on a separate bill to make it more difficult for high-quality charters to operate in certain school districts.
In the 2015 session, Edwards supported legislation that would have forced the mandatory return of New Orleans’ Recovery School District schools to the local school board. Additionally, he introduced two anti-reform bills, one to attack charter schools and the other to weaken the voucher program.
Just last week, as published in The Advocate, Edwards stopped just short of proposing a moratorium on the Recovery School District to prevent it from taking action to convert long-failing schools to a different model held to a higher standard of outcomes.
This is the record of an elected official who has fought to maintain an educational system that has failed most of our children and families for decades. It is no surprise that Edwards has spent this entire campaign trying to avoid the topic altogether.
The national and state unions that are driving and funding his campaign have a clear agenda and it is to kill education reform. It is the agenda Edwards has carried for them his entire legislative career, albeit unsuccessfully thus far. If elected governor, the unions are betting that they can finally start winning some of these battles and begin to tear out the very reforms that the rest of the nation admires us for having and that are now beginning to bear fruit.
No city stands more to lose if this happens than New Orleans, where educational progress has not been a partisan issue. In fact, the origins of the Recovery School District were in the administration of Gov. Blanco. Both former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Mayor Mitch Landrieu are proponents of charter schools. Many Democratic legislators from New Orleans have authored and supported school choice, accountability and high standards. Organizations like Democrats for Education Reform are active in Louisiana and support many of the policies and proposals that Edwards would seek to destroy as governor.
The record of progress in New Orleans is clear and has been supported by Republicans and Democrats alike because it is good for our children, the City of New Orleans, and the State of Louisiana. With so much to lose in New Orleans in particular, it is all the more confusing as to why so many of its notable citizens are trying to help Edwards accomplish his long-sought goal of bringing Louisiana back to its educational past. That is a history definitely not worth repeating.