New ed changes rile some in St. Tammany
There was a time when public schools were considered the great American success story. They were what helped America remain a land of opportunity, giving an extra tug on the bootstraps of those who were trying to pull themselves up, including the immigrants and children of immigrants who came to this country in enormous waves.
That’s no longer the popular conception of public education, however. For the past three decades or so, we’ve been comparing our educational system against Japan’s, for example, as well as other countries’, and we’ve found the American system wanting.
There have been a number of attempts to change that, including President George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” and a variety of approaches at state and local levels around the country.
In Louisiana, for example, the Legislature this year passed Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education plan, which includes vouchers — a hot-button issue whenever education reform has been discussed over the years — for children stuck in sub-par schools.
A philosophical linchpin of conservative efforts at school reform is the idea that public school systems should face market pressures and be forced to prove themselves against private schools. The money, the thinking goes, will flow to those schools that are showing the best results, so public schools had better improve their performance if they want to hold on to taxpayers’ money.
The idea is voiced in the Republican Party platform, which touts vouchers and tax credits and as a way to achieve “school choice.”
It was something of a surprise, however, when about 500 parents of public school students, as well as members of the St. Tammany Parish School Board, complained recently about the changes in state education.
St. Tammany is solidly conservative. When Jindal won the 2007 governor’s race with 53 percent of the vote statewide, he carried St. Tammany with nearly 75 percent. In 2011, when he won 66 percent statewide against anemic opposition, he clocked in at nearly 84 percent in St. Tammany. According to figures from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office, more than 72,000 of St. Tammany’s nearly 160,000 voters are Republicans. Democrats have about 43,700 voters registered, barely outnumbering the parish’s independent voters.
At two meetings earlier this month, parents and School Board members were up in arms about how the changes in the state’s education system have put a financial burden on the St. Tammany school system. The per-pupil allotment the parish gets via the state’s Minimum Foundation Program has gone down this year by nearly $300.
With some St. Tammany students taking advantage of vouchers to attend schools outside of the parish system, about $10,000 for each of those students comes out of the money available to the parish under the new education package. Parents and board members aren’t happy about that.
Of course, we can’t assume they represent a majority sentiment in the parish. No doubt there are many St. Tammany residents who hold a more skeptical view of public schools, too.
But the recent uproar shows that a lot of St. Tammany residents love their public schools. They’ve approved tax increases for education when asked, and the school system has returned the love with high performance scores. Just this week, it became one of only seven Louisiana school districts to get an A grade.
It’s ironic that, at least as far as education is concerned, a conservative parish like St. Tammany is showing us what government can do right, instead of what it can do wrong.
Dennis Persica is a New Orleans journalist. In his weekly column, he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.