INSIDE REPORT: St. George illustrates school upheaval

The growing fight over forming a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish points up the impact of dissatisfaction with public schools in Louisiana.

Backers say the drive stems from parental demands for better options than those offered by the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.

It follows two hotly-debated bids to set up a new school system in southeast Baton Rouge, which failed in the Louisiana Legislature this year and last.

One argument used by opponents at the State Capitol was that any new district needs to follow municipal boundaries.

Backers say that is what the city of St. George would do, assuming they get enough backers to put the issue on the ballot and passed.

What started as a school battle is about to turn into a giant fight on whether one new school district would essentially blow up public services for the entire parish.

A study financed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation — officials will not disclose how much they spent — says the new city would have a devastating impact on the parish and its school system.

The general fund would drop 30 percent because of the loss of sales tax revenue, in part because the Mall of Louisiana and other key retailers would become part of the new municipality, the study says.

The review also says spending per student would plummet for students in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

That aid would drop from $9,635 per student to $8,870, according to the report. Students in the new district would get $11,686.

All that raises the possibility for higher taxes, cuts in public services and other problems, LSU economist Jim Richardson and two other LSU professors wrote.

Charges of white flight and elitism also are creeping into the debate.

But the latest push points to a trend that has been going on for the past decade or so, with families fleeing traditional schools here and elsewhere amid complaints about quality, discipline and test scores.

The Zachary school system was formed years ago.

It has been the top-rated system in Louisiana for nine years in a row.

The Central Community School District is another breakaway district that used to be part of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

It is one of the top-rated districts in the state.

The third breakaway, the Baker school district, has struggled mightily.

Breakaway backers always cite Zachary and Central. Opponents cite Baker.

The state also has more than 100 charter schools used by about 58,000 students.

Charter schools are public schools run by non-governmental boards. They are supposed to offer innovative methods without much of the red tape found in traditional public schools.

Arguments continue on whether backers have delivered on their promises.

Yet charter schools dominate the landscape in New Orleans, which used to be known for having one of the worst public school systems in the nation.

Lots of parents have voted with their feet.

They essentially said they would rather take their chances with an untried experiment than a traditional public school that may have failed students for generations. Nearly 7,000 other students rely on vouchers to attend private schools.

Vouchers are state aid for students who meet income requirements to get out of public schools rated C, D and F.

The quality of the private school options vary. Yet just like charter school proponents, some parents sent their children to possibly risky private schools rather than a public school they believed had failed them.

Louisiana has suffered from low achievement in public schools for generations.

It is one reason that the state has one of the highest percentages of students who attend private schools in the nation.

That status was reinforced last month in a little-noticed report on the nation’s report card.

Public school students here tied for 50th in fourth-grade math. They were 48th in fourth-grade reading.

Eighth-graders tied for 48th in math and reading.

Those bleak figures alone do not justify the creation of a new city.

They shed light on why public school unrest is spilling into lots of other areas.

Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email