East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Bernard Taylor on Monday called for a renewed and honest community dialogue about the quality of public schools in Baton Rouge, saying there are widespread and erroneous perceptions in existence.
“There are people in Baton Rouge who think we’re still busing students for desegregation purposes, something we haven’t done in years,” Taylor said of the practice that wound down in the mid-1990s and ceased in 2003 with the settlement of the long-running desegregation case.
Giving what he described as a “glass half full” take on how the schools are doing, Taylor told the Baton Rouge Press Club that public schools in Baton Rouge are improving.
He noted steady improvement in district performance scores, standardized test scores and the ACT college placement exam as well as a recent strong showing on a pilot project that examines teacher effectiveness in the school system.
Still, the school system ranks 48th out of 70 school districts in the state. The school system has in the past 30 years lost most of its middle-class families to private schools, migration to suburban school districts and to three breakaway school districts in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Taylor said some schools in middle-class areas could fill up tomorrow with children from the immediate neighborhoods near the schools but pointed to class and race to explain why they don’t.
“We serve a population that is high poverty and high minority, and some people are uncomfortable with that, and that’s unfortunate,” he said.
Even with the student flight of recent years, the school system still has several high-performing schools that typically offer specialized magnet or gifted and talented programs. Taylor said the success of those programs is predicated on having a large school district of almost 43,000 students and a broad tax base.
“We take a little bit from everyone so that everyone has the opportunity to benefit from those programs,” Taylor said.
Taylor said creating more breakaway school districts and the state’s expansion plans in north Baton Rouge through the creation of an “Achievement Zone” threaten to draw even more money away from the school system and thereby threatens the popular special programs the school system offers.
Taylor said the school system by law can’t pick and choose its students and has to serve everybody no matter what.
“When noble experiments fail, we have to pick up the slack,” he said.
The school system is trying to persevere at a time when teachers haven’t received a raise in several years and the School Board has approved cuts of more than $80 million in the past three years with more cuts projected in coming years, he said.
“We have worked diligently to keep these cuts as far away from the classroom as possible,” Taylor said.
To turn this around, Taylor said the school system has to work to attract more students, which would bring more state education funding.
When asked what he is doing to change negative perceptions of the school system and regain the support of middle class residents, Taylor had few specifics.
“It’s not something I can do,” he said. “It’s something we can do as a community.”
Taylor said he’d like a vigorous community debate on this question before people give up on the idea of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system educating all children in town.
“If at the end of the day, the consensus is that we’re never going to change that, then we need to accept that and move on,” he said.
Taylor also spoke on a range of other topics.
He said much of the criticism he’s heard of East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members is unfair. He said since starting in June, he’s been impressed with the hard work of board members.
“No one is micromanaging,” he said. “It’s easy to criticize, but it’s hard to get in there to do the hard work.”
On private school vouchers, rather than targeting schools who have received state letter grades of C, D or F, vouchers should go strictly to children who are behind their peers in school, he said. Taylor said he doesn’t see the sense in providing a voucher to a child who is performing at grade level or better.
“The problem I have with vouchers is that I don’t think it’s targeted at the children who are truly in need,” he said.