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Is Louisiana a Harbinger of School Reform?

Long considered an educational backwater, Louisiana is now in the vanguard of the school reform movement. Two recent events there have implications for other states that are grappling with persistently failing schools and budget shortfalls.

In April, the state Legislature put in place one of the nation's largest voucher programs by offering 320,000 poor and middle-class parents the means to send their children to any school of their choice in the fall ("School Vouchers Gain Ground," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 11). It also made Louisiana one of a small number of states to adopt a parent trigger.

Then in June, a federal District Court judge ruled that the Louisiana Department of Education and the Orleans Parish School Board had illegally fired 7,500 school employees ("Louisiana Illegally Fired 7,500 Teachers, Judge Says," The New York Times, Jun. 22). The decision was the result of what transpired in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck in Aug. 2005. The state education superintendent asked for billions of dollars from the federal government to pay out-of-work employees, most of whom were from Orleans Parish, and to repair damaged schools.

But when the state-run Recovery School District took over nearly all New Orleans schools from the local school board as well as most of its operating budget, the funds were diverted to the recovery district. Stripped of money and control, the local school board had no choice but to fire 7,500 school employees who were on "disaster leave without pay." The federal judge termed that employment status to be "fictional," and ruled that the state was liable for making the local board unable to meet its contractual obligations to its workers.

Despite this reversal, I think that Louisiana will serve as a model for other states. The latest evidence was on display in June when the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously approved a resolution making the parent trigger a right ("Notes From the Education Underground," The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 20). They were undoubtedly influenced by California's action in becoming the first state to enact a parent trigger law in Jan. 2010. It means that if 51 percent of parents in a failing school sign a petition, the result could entail closing a school, firing all the staff, or turning over the school to a charter operator.

Parental empowerment is the dream of reformers. They're able to sell it now because taxpayers across the nation are so frustrated and angry about the painfully slow progress of traditional public schools that they are willing to try anything, even if it means throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I understand their impatience. There are some 2,000 high schools where more than 40 percent of the freshman class does not graduate. This is appalling. When parents are given a choice of any school, their children usually get a better education. At least that's the argument. But it's important to bear in mind that almost all dropout factories are located in poor zip codes. I question whether an entire new staff of teachers and administrators will be able to do much better. That's because schools have students for only part of the day. The rest of the time is spent in the home and in the neighborhood.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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