Compared to even a few years ago, the landscape of public education is bewildering.
The old days of one parish system with all schools reporting to a parishwide board and superintendent are about gone. Charter schools are independent of local systems but come in several forms that may or may not be sanctioned by the elected school board. And the state has exercised with vigor its authority to take over failing schools and put them either into charters or the state-run Recovery School District. And then there is the pressure for greater student achievement, the bottom line. Accountability for student achievement, expanded career education options and more flexible organizations of schools — not to mention higher academic standards under the Common Core initiative — are opportunities but also challenges.
All of the above should focus on the aim of improved student achievement, and we hope that voters will keep that focus in mind during critical school board elections on Nov. 4.
We have seen significant positive improvements under new leadership in two of south Louisiana’s larger systems: Jefferson and Lafayette parishes. While some charters have come in, amid some controversy, the sometimes tough changes pushed in those parishes improved student performance.
In Jefferson, retiring Superintendent James Meza has had the support of a board majority that is now facing pushback from teacher unions. The growth in student achievement in Jefferson is commendable and should be kept up; the current board majority has been financially responsible but also supported teachers with pay raises. The union is unhappy that the board spurned a collective bargaining agreement, but that old-fashioned approach to teacher assignments flies in the face of the empowerment of principals that has been a key to the achievements of the past four years.
We hope that voters will keep that progress in mind, because a board majority focused on student achievement will be critical to choosing a new superintendent.
In Lafayette, Superintendent Pat Cooper has been at odds with a board majority that has turned against the promising reforms in a “turnaround plan” developed by a communitywide process and strongly supported by the business community led by the Chamber of Commerce. The current board is seeking to sack Cooper, even as voters weigh choices for new members in elections only weeks away.
Firing Cooper would be a setback for the progress Lafayette schools have made. Yet, tough decisions, including future tax funding for elements of the turnaround plan, are not just about today’s superintendent. The community needs a board focused on Cooper’s goals so taxpayers will be more confident in new investments in the schools.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, board elections reflect a different environment: While outgoing Superintendent Bernard Taylor can point to some gains, the board and the business community worry that progress is nearly fast enough. Indeed, as the Baton Rouge Area Chamber has argued, East Baton Rouge needs a turnaround plan of its own.
The Advocate editorial board does not endorse specific candidates, but we definitely endorse progress. We urge voters to look at the progress in Jefferson and Lafayette and seek to keep it going. And Baton Rouge voters might well want some of the same formula for their schools.