Reading, writing and leading

Reading, writing and leading

Parse the inflammatory rhetoric on the subjects of public education, school choice and independent districts, and what you are left with is this simple, inescapable conclusion: Few people, if any, are happy with the current state of academic affairs in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System.

Equally apparent is that while there's abundant ranting on every side of every issue, there's little, if any, actual listening taking place. Far worse, and in typical Baton Rouge fashion, instead of banding together to deal with a complicated problem with enormous parishwide ramifications, we're taking the balkanization route.

Those in the school system—at least what's left of it—have adopted a bunker, protect-the-MFP-funding mentality, dismissing almost any notion of significant change. Teachers unions reflexively reject every proposal deemed to have the slightest iota of potential negative impact to their memberships, choosing instead to blame parents while protecting the lowest-performing of their ranks. School choice advocates, shrouding themselves in the cloak of free market competition, scoff at solutions that fail to include vouchers and charter schools. Baton Rouge's wealthy and middle-class families have effectively given up on a system torn apart by what was once the nation's longest-running desegregation case, opting instead to 1) enroll their children in private schools, 2) move to Ascension or Livingston, or 3) create demographically friendly independent school districts.

And the poor, as is often the case, are pretty much stuck with the remnants of what was once one of the nation's largest school districts.

In truth, many Baton Rouge public schools have shown improvement. What's also true is that it's a two-tier system—excellent for academically gifted children, but an abysmal failure for everyone else. That, frankly, is an intolerable reality, yet it's one that will remain unchanged as long as we're all hell-bent on focusing solely on our own self-serving solutions.

What no one wants to seriously discuss are the two monumental challenges facing what remains of the school district that formerly served all of East Baton Rouge Parish: massive and crippling retirement and benefit costs that drain more and more dollars from the classroom, and a population with an alarmingly high poverty rate. The poverty is especially vexing, particularly since we only seem interested in mitigating rather than actually solving it.

Exacerbating the problem is the parochial response of independent school districts, whose designers are happy to saddle the Baton Rouge system with millions in legacy costs while also creating gerrymandered districts that are remarkably devoid of poor and minority students.

That's what Zachary and Central did. That's what those hoping to create a new district in southeast Baton Rouge want to do. If successful, there's another group waiting to do the same in southwest Baton Rouge. Before that happens, however, bet the ranch that school board member and attorney Tarvald Smith, or someone else in the black community, files a federal lawsuit challenging the intra-parish white flight.

Here's a truth about these independent school districts: They are great for students in the middle, but they lack the financial resources to handle many special education students and adequately challenge academically gifted students. Zachary and Central may not have a Prescott Middle School, but they also don't have a Baton Rouge High.

Supporters point to these districts ranking as some of the best in the state, but Louisiana measures against bottom academic performers—not the top—and, as former state schools Superintendent Paul Pastorek pointed out, these districts are merely average in national measurements. If mediocrity is the goal, then the present path is the way to go. The problem is, mediocrity is an untenable position in a global economy driven by intellectual capital, and where the academic measuring stick is Singapore.

Perhaps it's time for leaders in this parish to sit down with an open mind and find solutions that can work for all children. Public education in East Baton Rouge is a problem in search of leadership, not special or parochial interests.

When a ship is listing, a coward screams, “Every man for himself!” A leader declares, “All hands on deck.” Right now, we've got cowards at the helm.

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