Walter Pierce

What side are you on?

by Walter Pierce

School board reform, I mean. Next week in Baton Rouge, after the sundries and niceties of the legislative session opening ceremonies, after Gov. Bobby Jindal exhorts lawmakers to do good for Louisiana, after hands are shaken and shoulders slapped, laws will be considered, argued over in committee, tussled over in the House and the Senate. Four of those laws, if passed, will radically change the dynamic between local school boards and their superintendents. Paul Pastorek, uber-super of Louisiana public schools, wants to neuter school boards, or ennoble them, depending on your perspective: Focus on the big picture, the curricula, the achievement goals, and let the superintendent deal with the nitty and the gritty.

The Daily Advertiser, which traditionally has been an equivocating editorial entity, came out flatly and fully in favor of school board reform this week. So too has the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, the Council for a Better Louisiana, the Public Affairs Research Council, and the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry. When PAR and LABI are on the same page, the end is neigh.

I’m a product of the Lafayette public school system. My children are advancing through it now, and my teacher wife draws a paycheck stamped LPSS, so you can imagine I’m inclined toward a favorable opinion of our public schools, and that’s generally where I stand. But in the back of my mind lurks a stark reality: Lafayette schools rank somewhere in the middle of the pack in a state that ranks near the very bottom nationwide, huddled out by the dumpster on a smoke break with Mississippi, New Mexico, the District of Columbia.

Hurricane Katrina was a calamity for New Orleans. That’s a given. But it revealed stress fractures across much of south Louisiana, which opened its classrooms to children from the very worst public school system in the state. It demonstrated, one could argue, that our public schools were just getting by, and when a population of children least prepared for education was introduced, the graph lines dipped southward. Extra bodies clambered into the life boat, and the vessel listed dangerously. But it was a life boat. Ultimately that’s what the Pastorek Plan addresses: the structure of the vessel. As chamber Chairman Kam Movassaghi put it — and I’m paraphrasing here — you can slap some paint on the house, but the roof will still leak.

It’s been observed that Lafayette’s civic body has blinders on when it comes to our public education system — so many kids in private schools, so many parents with no obvious investment in public education. Their level of engagement is diminished. But we all have a rooster in the pit, because every time a kid drops out of school, or struts across the platform at a graduation ceremony with no earthly idea where Afghanistan is, much less how to spell it, the graph line charting our quality of life dips southward, too.