Guest commentary: Keep making education reform happen

By Caroline Roemer Shirley

Photo by: TONY BOUDREAU  Caroline Roemer-Shirley
Photo by: TONY BOUDREAU Caroline Roemer-Shirley

Despite a growing number of attacks launched against charter schools, school accountability and even against BESE, from the usual suspects like the Louisiana School Board Association, the Louisiana Superintendents Association and teacher union organizations, the general strategy seemed to be to outwork us.

They did not succeed.

One of the most outspoken critics was state Representative John Bel Edwards of Amite. Whether driven by his campaign to become Louisiana’s next governor or just simply a political philosophy that supports traditional districts as monopolies over public education, Rep. Edwards was the champion for school boards and teacher unions, supporting numerous bills that LAPCS considered anti-charter.

Edwards’s premiere education bill of the session, HB 703 would have stripped the appeals process for charter school applicants located in districts with an A, B, or C letter grade.

Despite the Louisiana Department of Education’s data that shows there are 269 D and F schools in A-, B-, and C-rated districts, serving over 117, 000 students, Edwards continued to ignore the facts and advocate for the right of a district to disregard parental demand and take away a charter applicant’s right to appeal to BESE.

While the bill was resoundingly defeated in the Senate Education Committee, Rep. Edwards didn’t relent and, in the final hours of the session, tried to amend another bill from the floor.

With fierce questioning from Reps. Steve Carter, of Baton Rouge; Nancy Landry, of Lafayette; and Julie Stokes, of Kenner, choice for families won!

In fact, it was the vocal support of many parents, educators, advocates and legislators from around the state that defeated most of the anti-charter bills while still in committee or transformed them into study resolutions. The bills varied in purpose, but, ultimately, each was aimed at limiting families’ educational options by either reducing charter autonomy, cutting charter school funding or restricting charter school expansion.

Our membership is thrilled so many legislators remained committed to efforts to improve education in our state and voted to push forward.

But there is work yet to be done.

I have been around more legislative sessions than I care to remember, but I’ve never seen such a relentless and, at times, completely misleading debate as there was around Common Core and other education reform issues.

From crying parents to personal threats made against BESE members, Superintendent John White and education reform advocates; from conspiracy theories about the federal government to people shouting in committee at one another, the debate was over the top.

Despite being under colossal political pressure, the Louisiana Legislature stood strong for high educational standards and meaningful assessments – something that some other state legislatures have not being willing or able to do.

Regrettably, even with a strong message from the legislature, it remains unclear if Gov. Bobby Jindal will take further action that would halt implementation of Common Core. While we appreciate Gov. Jindal’s efforts to empower decision-making as close to students as possible, we adamantly disagree with his position that CCSS/PARCC is an effort to take over school curriculums, nor do we have the faith he seems to have in local districts to individually set high standards and create assessments for their schools.

Future legislative sessions will not get any easier on education issues, though one would think strong academic results, combined with innovative ideas in finance and governance from our charter movement, would reduce opponents.

Instead, education reform successes have pushed those who defend the status quo into a corner, and they are swinging like mad to get out.

Muhammad Ali once said, “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”

To reformers: Keep making it happen.

Caroline Roemer Shirley is founder and director of The Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.