Historic turning point for Louisiana

Historic turning point for Louisiana

Many in America may have been surprised upon reading about the passage of historic education reform in Louisiana. This dawn of a new day in public education happened as a result of the House and Senate passing Gov. Bobby Jindal's education reform package, covering school choice, scholarships, charters, tenure, and other governance issues. For a state that struggles to let go of its past, this was a monumental achievement—and a great day for children.

The rest of the country took note of Louisiana's actions. National business leaders read this in The Wall Street Journal: “Louisiana is poised to establish the nation's most expansive system of school choice by adopting a package of vouchers and other tools that would give many parents control over the use of tax dollars to educate their children.” Back home, a Times-Picayune editorial praised Jindal's reforms, saying, “Gov. Jindal is right to be bold. Despite those earlier reform efforts, Louisiana students still lag behind their counterparts in most other states. Implemented wisely, these reforms could make students more competitive—and improve their lives and the state's economic future.”

As the battle unfolded with protests at the state Capitol, I thought back to the days when the unions tried to stop Louisiana from becoming a right-to-work state. Now they were back, this time trying to block the governor and legislators from creating a “right-to-learn” state. Thank goodness for those legislators who showed the courage to stand up for children and parental choice. I applaud them—and the many other people and organizations that worked so hard to help this become a reality.

This was a hard-fought battle and, in my view, each vote was a litmus test as to whether one was “pro-child, pro-reform” or “pro-union, pro-status quo.” This was about willingness to try new solutions to an old problem versus accepting a system that leaves children trapped in failing schools with little hope for the future.

You should go to the legislative web- site and look up the bills (HB 974 and HB 976 by Rep. Steve Carter) and see how your legislator voted. They have been branded one way or the other. No excuses. Nowhere to run and hide. They had their chance and had to choose sides. Their votes are part of history.

Reality and research

Noel Hammatt, the former East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member who, in his last election, was defeated by a 3-to-1 margin, still hasn't come to grips with the fact that his 16-year record on the board was a dismal failure, accentuated by increasing student flight from the system, breakaway independent school districts and what remains of the district being rated as one of the worst in Louisiana. Yet, according to Hammatt, none of the blame resides with him or his then-colleagues on the school board. Instead, he says, blame everything on poverty.

Hammatt, in a recent Advocate letter to the editor attacking CABL's Barry Erwin and his support of Gov. Bobby Jindal's education reform, did his best to impress by throwing around “statistics” linking poverty to school failure. This self-proclaimed “independent researcher” noted St. Helena Parish has both the state's highest poverty rate as well as the lowest public school scores.

What Hammatt did not share were facts about another Helena—this one Helena, Ark., a city located in one of the poorest counties in that state. Helena is also home to a KIPP charter school opened in 2002 and run by Scott Shirey. It's interesting to note that Shirey was previously a Teach For America teacher in Baton Rouge before becoming a KIPP Fellow who wanted to open a KIPP school in Baton Rouge to serve impoverished students.

To be clear, there is no doubt that there is a link between income and academic achievement, but an impoverished student is not guaranteed a life of academic failure, as Hammatt would lead one to believe. And Shirey and KIPP have proven that.

What Hammatt fails to mention is that he, along with Rep. Pat Smith, then an East Baton Rouge school board member, is a longtime, outspoken critic of charter schools. Hammatt and Smith were two board members who strongly rejected Shirey's request to open a KIPP charter school in Baton Rouge. Instead of supporting innovative, risk-taking opportunities, they opted for the status quo, and now both decry the conditions of our public education system. Instead of taking responsibility for their failures, they opt, instead, to blame others for the continuing decline of public education in Baton Rouge.

Here are some stats, courtesy of KIPP, that might interest Hammatt: According to U.S. census data, only 30% of all Americans aged 25-29 have earned a four-year college degree. For students whose families are in the bottom economic quartile, only 8% hold a four-year college degree by their mid-20s. By contrast, 36% of KIPP students who finished eighth grade at KIPP 10 or more years ago have completed a four-year college degree. This rate is higher than the average for all students across all income levels nationwide, and four times the college completion rate of students from low-income communities. To summarize, KIPP students, almost all of whom come from impoverished backgrounds, earn college degrees at a rate greater than the American average, regardless of economic background.

Let's get beyond the stats and look at reality. Shirey, after being rejected by the likes of Hammatt and Smith, took his talents to Arkansas and opened a school in Helena. (He has since opened several other KIPP schools in Arkansas.) In a recent profile of Shirey, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote, “As the third class of seniors begins its final year at KIPP, Shirey confides that the attitude of each class has evolved. The class of 2010 was unique; they were the pioneer graduates, and all 23 students were accepted into college. In one of the poorest counties in the state, where 89 percent of the students are eligible for the free school lunch program, this was a major milestone.”

You don't hear Shirey making excuses about students from poor backgrounds in “his Helena” being unable to achieve high academic results. Instead of excuses, Shirey is producing results.

It is interesting to note that a decade after Hammatt and Smith rejected Shirey and KIPP, they are still coming up with excuses and fighting reform. Meanwhile, Shirey and Helena are celebrating success as their graduating seniors from poor financial backgrounds go off to college. And just think, it could have been Baton Rouge's lower-income children getting ready for their freshman year in college.

Paint the town

Baton Rouge can take another step toward becoming a cool city with your support. Casey Phillips and Kathryn Thorpe are spearheading the BR Walls Project, which has a goal to “transform the dull, beige and grey walls downtown into modern works of art” and “enhance BR's visual arts scene.”

Lamar Advertising has agreed to produce the vinyl artwork that will display the works of local artists, selected by a jury of artists and museum directors. The first walls will be located on Fourth Street.

But first they have to raise $25,000 by April 26. You can get more information at brwallsproject.com.

Remember to vote

For those who live in the city limits of Baton Rouge, Baker or Zachary, you get to vote on the CATS tax on Saturday, April 21. I will vote “no” for many reasons, as I explained in my last column. You can find it online here.

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