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Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed comments on the announcement that, for the first time, Louisiana’s public High School graduation rate exceeds 80 percent — 81.4 percent. Behind Reed is, left, state Superintendent of Education John White and Iberville Parish Superintendent Arthur Joffrion Jr.

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Inside the State Capitol on Wednesday, observers and participants in the legislative circus might have been wondering if anything positive was being accomplished for Louisiana.

On the same day, on the steps outside, Louisiana’s superintendent of education and other officials were pointing out the real and brighter future that is possible when a new generation of Louisiana students get a better start in college and careers.

The signature achievement, after years of trying, was that public high schools graduated more than 80% of students over four years.

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But if the graduation rate is still not what we want it to be — the national average was almost 85% last year — the progress over the last decade represents a sea change for Louisiana, according to Education Superintendent John White.

“The positive results announced today reflect many years of relentless focus in our schools, and more progress is on the horizon,” White said.

The announcement drew bipartisan praise, including from retired Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, who authored a 2009 bill mandating that the state reach higher than its former and dismal rate, then about two-thirds of students.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Nevers said in a telephone interview with The Advocate. “That is a huge accomplishment.”

It is, but we think there are a lot of reasons to look beyond that number, even as teachers and students should be focused on meeting or exceeding the national average in future years.

Teachers and students do the work. Schools perform better, though, because Louisiana has had strong leadership in education focused on accountability and giving pathways to education after high school.

"It is not enough in today's world to simply earn a high school diploma," White said.

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He is exactly right, and in the thicket of education statistics, we think this stands out: Officials said students earning a college or career credential rose from 47.5% percent last year to 50.4% in 2018.

"There are a lot of people behind those percentages," said Holly Boffy, a member of the state education board who lives in Youngsville.

There are: White’s leadership and bipartisan support from the governor’s office and the state education board — and never forgetting superintendents and principals in the trenches — have made that possible. It takes time, money and sound policy.

But the brighter future for Louisiana is what students have made of their chances. Every young person who steps up by taking a tougher course that can lead to college credit, or earns a certification in a technical career, has a much stronger start in career and life.

We’re a long way from where we want to be in public education. But Wednesday’s announcement should be celebrated as showing how to raise our sights.

John White: Historic gains for high school students in Louisiana