The dramatic improvements in public education in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina soak up a lot of news coverage.
So sometimes we fail to appreciate the remarkable changes going on in the school system next door, Jefferson Parish.
But it’s worth taking a minute to note the hard work and improvements in Jefferson Parish now that superintendent James Meza has announced he will be stepping down in September.
A generation ago, public schools fueled the population growth in Jefferson, but more recently the schools had stagnated and the parish was no longer a magnet for young families.
The school system had in fact become a drag on the parish. The share of students in private and parochial schools was among the highest in the nation, and predictably civic involvement in public education was anemic.
Jefferson Parish in many ways has transformed into an urban system. Three quarters of the students are poor and one in five comes from a home where English is not the primary language.
Eventually, business leaders in the parish became concerned and threw their weight behind School Board candidates determined to improve the situation.
A new school board backed Meza, and in his first two years, the system’s state performance grade rose from a D to a B. The share of Jefferson Parish schools earning an A or a B rose from 14 percent to 41 percent.
One of the ways he accomplished that was by making principals responsible for the performance of their schools. He replaced about half of them and empowered principals by ending collective bargaining, so they could take control of teacher hiring.
The School Board backed him on a 5-4 vote, a courageous stand given the prowess of teacher unions at election time.
This fall, voters in Jefferson Parish will decide whether they want to continue the system’s progress or return to an era when the School Board seemed to be more worried about its employees than its students.
Meza says he will move on and may offer his services as a consultant for school systems. One place where they might use his advice is Baton Rouge, where unhappiness with public schools has fueled the bitter fight over St. George and business leaders have tried to help but struggled to find a constructive role.