Opinion

Now more than ever, we need to put students first

Photo of Gov. Bobby Jindal
Gov. Bobby Jindal
Louisiana Governor

With a solid transcript chock full of A’s and B’s, a New Orleans area high school student was not only set for graduation in 2003, but prepared to be honored as the school’s valedictorian. But there was a problem. Despite five attempts at the Graduate Exit Exam, she hadn’t passed. The same student scored an 11 on the ACT, putting her in the bottom one percent of all test takers.

How is that possible? If the high school valedictorian can’t pass a test required to graduate and compares so poorly to her peers nationally, what does that say about Louisiana’s education system?

We have come a long way since 2003 and Louisiana has implemented some of the most transformative education laws in the country. Many of the reforms started in New Orleans and the results are incredible. With the creation of the Recovery School District and 78 percent of students in Orleans Parish enrolled in charter schools, scores are on the rise. The percentage of students in New Orleans who are reading and doing math at grade level has more than doubled since 2007 and the number of failing schools in New Orleans has been cut in half. We have more work to do, but we are headed in the right direction.

In 2008, we started a scholarship program in New Orleans to give parents with kids trapped in failing schools a choice. This program has given parents more choice, saved taxpayer dollars, and improved test scores. For example, the percentage of third graders in the scholarship program demonstrating proficiency in math is up 23 percentage points (compared to two points statewide), and in English the percentage is up 12 points (compared to three points statewide).

That is progress, but we couldn’t be content with success in just one part of the state. Indeed, in 2011, 44 percent of Louisiana’s public schools were failing and one-third of students weren’t performing at grade level. We said it was unacceptable and we set out to create a system of choice for all Louisiana children.

This year, with bipartisan support, we expanded the scholarship program across the state, increased access to educational enhancements like virtual schools, advancement placement courses, and dual enrollment, and empowered parents with a trigger to effect change in their school more quickly by converting it to a charter school or replacing the management.

Roughly 5,000 students are now in the scholarship program and more than 10,000 students applied. That shows a true hunger for more choice in our state. After another year of reform, 36 percent of schools are now failing, compared to 44 percent last year. There are still too many failing schools, but the results show that reform is paying off.

Every step of the way to get these reforms done, we have battled the coalition of the status quo, a group of unions and naysayers who want to make this about the adults instead of the students.

At first they tried to challenge us at the ballot box by voting for status quo candidates for the state board of education, but Louisianians voted for reform candidates. Then they tried in the Legislature, but Democrats and Republicans voted for reform legislation. They tried recalling the reformers and failed. They even said that poor parents “have no clue” how to choose a school for their children. And now they are making a last-ditch effort to stifle our reforms in court. We expect reform to prevail again in court this week.

The opponents of reform want to go backwards. They want to go back to the days of more schools failing and they want to disenfranchise the thousands of students who are already taking advantage of our reforms to get a chance at a great education. To take from students an opportunity they so badly need, and thoroughly deserve, would certainly be unjust.

Bobby Jindal is the governor of Louisiana.