Driving Louisiana’s highways, dotted by rivers and bayous, is an education itself. These trips also reveal much about the diversity of education in this state.
In big cities, like Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport, densely-packed neighborhoods may house several schools, while families across a 50-mile span might attend the same high school in rural parishes. And, in between, are rapidly-developing suburban parishes, like Ascension, Bossier, Livingston and St. Tammany, with new school buildings, adjacent to new subdivisions. When I ask what’s behind this growth, the response is always the same, “People move here for our schools.”
Louisiana families are exercising school choice. Nationally, we rank third for private school enrollment. Less noted, however, is growth in these suburban districts, where student performance and enrollment are both rising.
But not all Louisiana families can use real estate to change schools; they simply can’t afford to move. Yet, it’s these families whose children most often attend low-performing schools. While poverty makes teaching and learning more challenging, improvement is less likely when families have less clout to influence change. The cycle of under-education continues.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and our legislators recently gave families a tool to disrupt this cycle. Act 2 of the current session allows families below a moderate income level, with children attending C, D or F schools, to apply for scholarships to qualified private schools or A or B public schools outside their district.
While the nonpublic school component of the law is high-profile, the opportunity for public schools to welcome students from struggling schools in other districts has been largely unreported. Like nonpublic schools, public schools can choose whether to participate in the program, the number of students they wish to serve, and whether to provide transportation. Participating schools also receive the full per-pupil funding for transferring students, based on the parish where the student lives.
In tight budget years, opportunities to increase revenues are rare. More importantly, for higher-performing districts and schools, participation in this program represents a chance to show a child a new world — and change lives. Some suggest participation will result in problems families were trying to escape when they relocated or that participation will lower standards. But educators know better. We know good schools meet the needs of students who need it most — children waiting on a chance to flourish.
Last week, Zachary Superintendent Warren Drake announced Louisiana’s top-rated system would accept 30 scholarship students from outside the district. But pressure from the community led him to reverse his decision. With the May 18 deadline approaching, 68 other district superintendents now face the same choice. I urge these districts to open the doors of their A and B schools. It’s the right thing to do for our children.
state superintendent of education