TELFORD:State-level education reform key to kids’ future

Louisiana sets the standard

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Our children represent our hopes and dreams for tomorrow, and in the eyes of a parent, there’s nothing more important. Unfortunately, today the troubles in our education system hang like a dark cloud over our children’s bright future. It’s not surprising that 53 percent of Americans think today’s children will not be better off than their parents were. With gridlock in Congress and a history of disappointment at the federal level, the best place for meaningful education reform to take place is at the state level.

The flaws in our education system leave too many parents with no choice but to send their children to failing schools and sit by as they receive a poor education. Despite the federal government’s ambitious attempts at the federal level to improve education through initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, these programs haven’t worked as intended.

State lawmakers can look to the example set by Louisiana, a pioneer in education reform for the 21st century. The reform package passed by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal last year creates an aggressive school voucher program, expands charter school opportunities and ties teacher tenure to effectiveness in the classroom.

Under this new law, Louisiana parents have more control over how their tax dollars are spent, and can choose whichever type of school best suits their child’s individual needs: public, charter, private, parochial or virtual.

Less than a year into the program, the results for Louisiana students have been inspiring. Fifty-six hundred vouchers, each worth about $5,300, have been granted. Of these vouchers, 86 percent went to families that otherwise would have been forced to send their children to the state’s worst-performing schools: those receiving a “D” or “F” in accountability ratings.

This isn’t the first time Louisiana has taken the lead in reforming education. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, the state converted many of the city’s public schools into charter schools. Seven years later, the city’s students are doing better than they were before the hurricane. Graduation rates are up in the Big Easy, and the number of schools receiving failing grades is down.

Each state should consider the individual needs of its families and the specific flaws in its education system when adopting reforms, but they would be wise to follow the three-tiered model set forth by Louisiana: Create a voucherized school choice system with preference for children in failing school districts; expand charter schools, particularly in districts with low graduation rates; and tie teacher tenure to effectiveness, with administrators, not union stewards, politicians or test scores, as the final arbiters.

Teachers should be celebrated for the vital role they play in helping our children develop, but they must also be held accountable. Too often, teachers unions stand in the way of reform and are more concerned with protecting bad teachers than rewarding good ones. That mindset leaves our children in failing schools with a bleak outlook for the future.

Statistics show that underperforming teachers make exactly the same salary as satisfactorily performing teachers. In New York State, over 99 percent of public-school teachers are retained each year, regardless of their performance. When compared to the 10 percent of private-school teachers who are let go each year for underperformance, it’s easy to understand why teacher tenure and evaluation must be a part of any meaningful reform to education.

Allowing states to take the lead on education reform will foster creativity and encourage state governments to find solutions that fit their unique needs. National School Choice Week, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, is an excellent opportunity to explore the options for improving our educational system.

We’ve learned over the past few years that Congress is incapable of working together to create long-term solutions to our problems, and it doesn’t look like that will be changing anytime soon. Now more than ever, it is important that state legislatures take it upon themselves to reform our education system by empowering parents to make decisions that best address the needs of their children.

Erik Telford is the vice president of Strategic Initiatives & Outreach at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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