by Stephen Waguespack, President and CEO of Louisiana Association of Business and Industry
To be from Louisiana is to love Louisiana. If you were born and raised here, you are probably like many of us in that you couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Our people, culture and sense of community separates us from others. The resolve we show in times of crisis is admired by the nation and the fun we incorporate into everything we do is why tourists flock here each year. We have much to be thankful for and are blessed to call Louisiana home.
But if we are honest, we must confess that we also face many challenges. Our state-heavy governing structure created by Huey Long decades ago is unsustainable and must be changed. Our state budget is riddled with too few performance metrics, too many dedications and Medicaid and pension costs that are crowding out all other priorities. Our infrastructure needs new investment, but taxpayers don’t trust that government wouldn’t just siphon the money off for some other pet project. Our tax code is an ever-changing, complicated mess and our legal climate scares away business investment. For a state that boasts family as the paramount concern, one would think Louisiana would excel in educating our children. Unfortunately for citizens across Louisiana, one of our most complicated challenges has proven to be our educational system. Louisiana’s model of education has long underserved our children, under preparing them for life’s challenges, consequently requiring many of our universities to be more focused on remediation than workforce development.
While our education model has operated at sub-par standards for years, we are starting to dig ourselves out of the mammoth hole of low educational outcomes in our K-12 system and many of the players that have contributed to that positive movement deserve appreciation.
Last week, the latest LEAP scores for our K-12 schools came out and clearly showed we are continuing to make positive strides. One-third of students tested statewide scored “Mastery” or above, the same as last year but a four-point increase since 2015. In recent years, the state board of education has increased the rigor of these standards in math, science and english, a higher standard many education reform opponents argued Louisiana students simply couldn’t master. These results show our students were up for the challenge. Even districts with massive flooding (Central, Ascension) improved test scores this year. Overall, Louisiana’s graduation rate is up 9.8% since 2010, which is double the national improvement rate.
These gains are a product of the hard work of our students and tireless work of our teachers. An enhanced focus on expanding school choice over the last decade has given new opportunities to low income families, many of which have taken courageous stands to give their children the skills needed to rise out of poverty. A bipartisan group of legislators and governors have fought for these reforms, going back to the days of Governor Foster. Governor Blanco and Cecil Picard, as state superintendent of education, took some strong stances in the days after hurricanes Katrina and Rita that helped New Orleans become a mecca for high quality charters and choice programs. Governor Jindal and Superintendent Pastorek then kept the pedal to the metal on reform efforts, expanding choice and accountability in the state.
Superintendent White has since taken that baton roughly five years ago and has hit another gear altogether. White has continued to build on that bipartisan reform legacy by staying focused on the tough decisions that aim to improve outcomes for kids and, in the process, has evolved into one of the most well respected superintendents in the country. For this reason, and countless others, the recent threats made by Governor Edwards that he may sue John White in a desperate attempt to get the courts to kick him out would be an embarrassing effort that would reek of union political payback. Hopefully he avoids such a partisan effort that would put the needs of adults over the needs of children.
Louisiana has not crossed the finish line yet. We have much more work to do to develop a high-quality education system. Too many of our kids are still stuck in failing schools. We need to provide even more choice and opportunity for those families and use our existing dollars wisely. Low quality schools, no matter how they are defined, must improve or risk being replaced with another delivery model that better meets the needs of families. Our strong schools must strive to become even stronger. The jobs of tomorrow require young adults that can read, write, stay off drugs and have good soft skills. Anything less than that level of preparation from our educational system is unacceptable.
We have many challenges left to tackle with our school system. But make no mistake…slowly but surely… our bipartisan march to better schools is working. We cannot deviate from this path. We are on the right track, we must stay on course.