Louisiana School Reforms Turn Disaster into Opportunity

Published July 19, 2010

Excessive red tape strangles innovation, undermines reform, and even endangers public health. It’s what prevented Louisiana officials from quickly dredging sand berms along the Gulf Coast in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. And a surplus of bureaucracy has undermined efforts to fix the Pelican State’s struggling public education system.

Louisiana remains largely at the mercy of federal bureaucrats and dodgy corporate managers in the ongoing effort to clean up its oil-tarred coastline, and if the Louisiana Federation of Teachers has its way, the state’s school system will remain swamped in red tape as well.

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) on June 30 signed the Red Tape Reduction and Local Waiver Empowerment Program Act. The law lets schools obtain four-year waivers from certain state regulations, such as hours of operation, class sizes, and some onerous reporting requirements. The law does not exempt schools from academic accountability, state curriculum standards and testing, or statewide high school graduation requirements.

The idea is to give principals and administrators around the state the same sort of leeway many of their peers in New Orleans have enjoyed since reforms were instituted after Hurricane Katrina. Waivers would give administrators more freedom to experiment. If a school succeeds in bolstering student achievement, the waiver could be renewed. And if an experiment fails, the waiver has an expiration date.

Louisiana’s law also would suspend collective bargaining agreements, which rankles union bosses. As a result of an 11th-hour compromise, the legislation requires teachers to consent before a principal or superintendent may apply for a waiver.

Despite that big concession, the union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality the day after Jindal signed the bill.

Flexibility. Competition. Opportunities for children to get the help they need to excel in school and in life. More freedom to focus on academic enrichment at the expense of bureaucracy, rather than serve bureaucracy at the expense of students. Who could object to that?

Louisiana’s teachers union has stepped up and said no to all of those things. Why? It’s right there in the motto on the union’s Web site: “Better benefits. Improved working conditions. Higher pay.” Nothing about academic excellence. Imagine that.

Louisiana has stood at the cusp of wide-ranging education reform for years, with the union standing in the way at nearly every turn. But in the five years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, school officials and teachers have made astonishing progress beyond the meddling reach of the traditional education establishment.

In New Orleans, choice and competition are increasingly the norm. Tax money follows the child to the school of his or her parents’ choice. Approximately two-thirds of New Orleans public schools are charter schools, with more converting every year. Nearly 70 percent of the city’s estimated 26,000 students attend a charter school.

The result? Test scores are up substantially since 2005. High schools are graduating more students who can actually read, write, and compute.

Given the advances in New Orleans, cutting red tape statewide makes sense. But why stop there? To Jindal’s credit, he also signed bills in June to establish a pilot voucher program for students with special needs and to make it easier for homeschooled students to apply for admission to a state college or university.

With disaster comes the opportunity to rebuild and make a start fresh. It took one of the greatest natural disasters in American history to sweep away the status quo in New Orleans. We shouldn’t have to wait for another disaster to sweep away the resistance and allow the lessons of New Orleans to be applied in the rest of Louisiana and other struggling districts around the nation.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.