Whether Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reforms approved in the spring are good or bad for education in Louisiana was the subject of debate Thursday by a five-person panel of education advocates.
The panel was sponsored by the nonprofit group Volunteers in Public Schools and took place over lunch at Juban’s Restaurant. Two of the panelists opposed the changes and three supported them to varying degrees.
Much of the discussion focused on the statewide expansion of a New Orleans program that allows students in some lower-performing public schools — ranked C, D or F — to use publicly financed vouchers to attend private schools.
“I think vouchers drain resources away from public schools,” said Melissa Flournoy, a former state representative and now director of a liberal advocacy group called Louisiana Progress.
“Until every public school is a school where you would send your child, we will need alternatives,” said Brigitte Nieland, vice president for communications of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
Panelists who supported vouchers, however, also called on the state Department of Education to write rules that make private schools more accountable. Erin Monroe Wesley, senior vice president of government affairs of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, argued strongly on this point.
Nieland said private schools need some leeway, noting student privacy may trump accountability at schools taking in just a few kids.
Nieland and panelist Stephanie Desselle, vice president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, said the voucher discussion is a distraction.
“We’re really spending so much time talking about vouchers when it was a small part of what was passed,” Deselle said.
Desselle said the new test-scored-based teacher evaluation system, changes in tenure law, and changes that give principals more autonomy are far more important in that they will affect more than 700,000 children in public schools and not just a small portion of students.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, disputed the idea that Louisiana is really concerned about better performance.
“We don’t pay for performance. We gave the Hornets $38 million and they didn’t even make the playoffs,” he quipped.
James said he supported aspects of Jindal’s agenda but ended up voting against every bill, saying that some changes are unconstitutional.
“This whole process was about bending the rules to score some points,” he said.
James said that as lawmakers began to find out more about the laws they passed early in the most recent legislative session, they began to become more critical of the changes.
“If we had that vote at the end of May, it would have come out differently,” James said.
All of the panelists expressed at least some support for charter schools.
Flournoy was most critical, saying that charter schools require more study to see which of their components are successful and can be applied to other schools. She also questioned a provision that will allow universities and other groups to authorize charter schools. Desselle, however, said that part of the law has many safeguards.
Nieland said New Orleans, which has the highest concentration of charter schools in the nation, is worth emulating.
“We are seeing success for the first time, and we are becoming a national model,” Nieland said.
The panel ended with an audience member asking several questions. East Baton Rouge Parish Schools Superintendent Bernard Taylor, who started the job June 18, asked what the state did before instituting school grades and report cards to mitigate the negative effects on schools of residential segregation, lack of access to health care and crime.
“I think there is a misnomer that schools want kids to fail when it’s more about the nature of the kids who the school services,” he said.
Desselle acknowledged those are big problems, but said education is the logical and best place to start to improve matters.
“The reason we fight so hard is education is the only thing that can break that cycle,” she said.