The LABI Report: A ticket out of failing schools?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 13, 2002


The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, has taken the nation’s education circles by storm. Pundits, politicians, and even people who really know what they are talking about are making wide-ranging predictions about what the 5-4 decision, which upheld the city of Cleveland’s school voucher program, will have on public and private K-12 education in America.

The full impact of Zelman will not be known for decades. Declaring voucher systems constitutional and getting them funded and implemented are two different matters. The natural enemies of vouchers – school employee unions and their apologists in government and the media – certainly have not gone away.

If anything, Zelman will strengthen their resolve against granting poor parents the right to take their children out of failing schools and place them in a public, private, or parochial school of their choice.

This landmark decision will strengthen the determination of parental choice in education supporters as well. Their success will depend upon their ability to convert the momentum gained from the decision into coalitions for action all across the land, including here in Louisiana.

The Bayou State is no stranger to the voucher issue.

Hardly a legislative session goes by without some form of voucher legislation being introduced. Most of the bills have simply been statements of principle by their authors with no real push to secure the votes needed for passage.

But there have been well-designed school choice plans in the past that were strongly pushed without success in our Legislature.

The combination of vehement opposition by the school employee unions and lack of support by legislators whose constituents needed vouchers most doomed the prior attempts to failure.

The Zelman decision will undoubtedly prompt a new round of attempts to enact legislation that would give poor parents a ticket out of the “doomed to fail” syndrome that has plagued so many of Louisiana’s children.

The fate of the new plans will be tied to many things, including the reasonableness of what is being proposed, the degree of support coming from legislators representing predominately poor districts, and how the plans mesh with the new K-12 accountability program.

The accountability program has generated favorable commentary so far in its attempt to improve test scores by holding students, schools, and school districts accountable for achievement – or the lack of it. The fairly easy scores necessary to advance from the fourth and eighth grades will go up a notch in 2003 and again in 2005.

It is quite likely that larger numbers of students could be held back in those grades if substantial improvement in instruction and learning does not come about soon.

That means more poor parents are likely to become extremely frustrated with a system that fails to give their children a basic education after years in the classroom.

The anger of those parents could be a powerful weapon to attack the foundation of the accountability program, or it could become the most powerful tool yet to bring about a true school choice plan in Louisiana.

One thing is certain: School union opposition to voucher plans will not go away.

The education monopoly has a stranglehold on the charter school movement in the state, attempting to squeeze the life out of it and it will be even more vicious toward vouchers.

A successful school choice initiative will need a partnership between poor parents and supporters of individual empowerment, a coalition cutting across all demographic lines to enact a law that will finally give poor children a ticket out of schools that fail in Louisiana.

Similar partnerships worked in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and could work in Louisiana. For that to happen, groups who traditionally have had little interaction must team up to give kids a chance to learn and beat the cruel cycle of poverty and all the ills that go with it.

DAN JUNEAU is the president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.