Gov. Bobby Jindal’s far-reaching, but divisive changes to public education in Louisiana, particularly new state aid for some students in low-performing schools to attend parochial and private schools, prompted extensive and inconclusive debate at two panel discussions Wednesday morning.
The panels, which included three lawmakers who fought against most of Jindal’s proposals, were organized by Metro Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards.
“Unfortunately, when you don’t always agree with the dominant theory going forward, you are portrayed as an obstructionist,” said state Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, who served in the Legislature since 1992. “And that’s the last thing I want to be labeled as, an obstructionist. I came to be a catalyst for change.”
Another panelist, Eric Lewis, is Louisiana director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-school-choice group that strongly supported Jindal’s agenda, which was approved during the legislative session that just ended Monday.
Lewis told the audience of about 50 people at the Delmont Service Center on Wednesday that ever since New Orleans began its private school voucher program in 2008, parents from across Louisiana have been clamoring for similar alternatives to traditional public schools and now have them.
“There had to be a sense of urgency,” Lewis said. “I understand that things were fast, but we didn’t feel that we had time to wait to give better options for children.”
Jindal’s education agenda included HB974, which makes it harder to earn and retain teacher tenure, and HB976, which expanded eligibility for some students in low-performing public schools to attend parochial and private schools using state tax dollars.
Patricia McFarland, who used to work on charter school issues for the state Department of Education and retired in 2007, said she is a supporter of school choice but the speed with which the changes were approved and are being implemented scares her.
In her experience, McFarland said good charter schools take at least a year to organize, whereas these changes are taking place in a matter of months.
It’s possible the new schools, charter and private schools funded by vouchers, will be no better, or perhaps worse than the traditional public schools families want other options to, she said.
“My greatest fear is that kids are going to be trapped in one failed school after the last,” McFarland said.
Veronica Brooks, policy director for the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, was more positive about the changes, but said the next few months will be key.
“There is a lot of good stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s how we implement them and making sure that they work that’s important,” Brooks said.
Carlos Sam, interim superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, disputed the idea that Baton Rouge public schools are a big problem, noting the school district has one of the fastest rates of academic improvement in the state.
“We think we are the schools of choice in Baton Rouge,” he said.
State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said that she and other lawmakers pressed supporters of the changes to hold private schools more accountable but to no avail.
For instance, the original version of the main bill the Legislature debated would have allowed private schools to not offer special education services, Smith said. Private schools can still find ways around not having to offer such services, she said.
“They can put you in the school and then tell you they don’t have the services to provide to your child,” Smith said.
State Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, said the new vouchers will help only a small number of children in low-performing schools. Meanwhile, the loss of revenue to traditional public schools will mean a worse education for the majority of children who remain, he said.
Broome, Smith and Williams all voted against HB974 and HB976 as well as the creation of the proposed Southeast Baton Rouge Community School District.
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