I owe an apology to the directionless teens, to the 20-something men and women out there in Lafayette who have staked a claim to a street corner or commandeered some hard-won turf, to the shady characters who burgle our homes and rob our neighbors, to the hookers and junkies and chronic under-achievers, to the mom who opens her car door in the parking lot and drops a soiled diaper on the asphalt. My culpability, my aid in your station, began the moment I made a retail purchase in Lafayette and ponied up for a sales tax. It began wholesale 13 years ago when my wife and I purchased our first home. Since then, the sales and property taxes I have paid — thousands of dollars — have helped fund public education, making me a shareholder. Based on a recent performance assessment of Lafayette Parish public schools by Greg Davis, I’ve been getting a poor return on my investment.
You read about Davis’ assessment for the first time Monday at theind.com. It started with a 2001 deal between the school system and the Chamber of Commerce: If the chamber supported a sales tax for schools, the school system would improve. The chamber supported the sales tax. Lafayette schools did not improve. This will no doubt fuel more support for the so-called “Pastorek Plan” to reform school boards. The Legislature will consider the plan in a few weeks, and it has already been endorsed by several prominent statewide civic, business and government watchdog groups.
Among the state’s more than 65 school districts since 2001, Lafayette has fallen from 17th to 25th. That’s 17th to 25th in a state that ranks 47th in the nation. So while I was spackling the den and tiling the kitchen and bouncing baby on my knee, my property and sales taxes were paying for schools, and you street-corner types were just kids in those schools. Innocents as it were. You had a chance back then probably. I’ve been underwriting your lack of education. I helped you drop out, practically showed you to the door. At my middling best I let you graduate from high school with the reading and writing skills of a sixth grader. Can you find Ireland on a map? Can you spell Ireland?
While you slid irreversibly toward Loserville, I did nothing. I didn’t connect educated children with functional adults, low crime, clean streets, with the overall quality of life in my community. I was busy. I didn’t expect a return on my investment. I demanded nothing of the school system, the schools, my fellow parents, or of myself.
Davis’ assessment of Lafayette schools is based on public information culled from the state education department. I’m pretty sure I haven’t been getting what I’ve paid for. The system’s district performance score was flat over seven years; the disparity between our best public schools and our worst public schools remains wide. High schools, middle schools and elementary schools achieved 9, 8 and 0 percent, respectively, of their performance goals.
So I’ve been party in my own small way to systemic underachievement. I’ve lived well even as thousands of you were squeezed through a dysfunctional school system and pumped out into the world unequipped to make a contribution. And be warned, there are those among us who believe with the certainty of a sunrise that you should have just pulled yourself up by your boot straps and succeeded. They will always be there, breathing heavily near you. Glaring. You failed them, not vice versa.
There’s little I can do for you now, tough guy. Give a donation to United Way and avert my eyes. Most teachers bust their butts. I know this intimately. I married one. It’s the system, somehow, that just isn’t working. And the system isn’t the schools or the school system or the teachers or administrators or parents or politicians. It’s all of us. It’s me.