Search This Blog


If state won't, citizens must push school board reforms

Louisiana State Superintendent of Schools Paul Pastorek’s ideas on school board reform need a serious hearing, if not outright enactment, this session.

Pastorek is going to get introduced in the upcoming legislative session bills that call for switching the paying board members salaries in favor of per diem, limiting the number of terms they can serve consecutively, and requiring them to have at least a high school diploma to serve. Pastorek also wants to give more power to local superintendents when it comes to hiring and firing. He argues that these would reduce the influence that politics has that can interfere with quality educating.

That supposition seems plausible. Some board members in some places have served over two decades, and some or others have boards with little turnover. This could produce insular policy-makers too caught up with long-standing relationships within the district. Regular pay regardless of activity may be too encouraging for those more interested in wielding power and drawing a paycheck than people willing to spend much time and effort in trying to make good decisions and policy. Those who haven’t even matriculated from high school may not understand what comprises quality education. Too much ability of boards to intrude into personnel matters hampers optimal administration of education.

It’s also one that makes the education establishment nervous. When he advocated those ideas at the statewide meeting of the Louisiana School Board Association earlier this month, his address was cut short (the organization claiming he had gone 10 minutes over his allotted 10 while Pastorek said it had told him previously he had 30) and he was followed by its president (who serves East Baton Rouge’s board, one of the lowest performing districts in the state) who then criticized these proposals (which Pastorek had not gotten to in his abbreviated remarks) to audience approval.

That’s no surprise, since the best any school board in this state can claim to accomplish is mediocrity. District Performance Scores for schooling, largely but not completely compiled though test scores, set 100 as an average score that all districts at a minimum should attain. Only six of the state’s 69 districts managed to score at least this in 2006-07, none higher than 110.1. The average (excluding 2005 hurricane disaster-impacted districts) was 85.3.

As for the state compared to others, the Iowa Basic Skills Test shows by the time they hit high schools that students in Louisiana score (barely) below average. Meanwhile, with a nationwide American College Test average in 2006-07 of 21.2, state students could muster only a 20.1

The usual excuses for these results that get trotted out by Louisiana’s school boards and teachers unions are that it’s things allegedly out of their control like “poverty” or that there’s not enough money thrown at schools to succeed, but then why is it in international testing (such as in sciences) American students perform below most other students of tested nations, including some whose standards of living on average are what we would consider to be close to if not impoverished? And as per pupil expenditures close in on $10,000 a year and Louisiana teacher pay continues to skyrocket, why is there no noticeable increase in performance if money has anything to do with it?

The answers are, of course, these things don’t really matter. Instead, research has shown teacher quality is the key component to improving educational outcomes. And having school boards that can lapse into becoming too concerned about internal politicking and pleasing teachers’ unions inhibits reforms of these kinds, such as instituting merit pay and regular competency testing of teachers. Or the greater refreshing of officeholders caused by term limits and per diem pay also may encourage greater oversight to prevent ossification that, for example, led to the Bossier system being cheated out of a million dollars.

The bad news is the legislative package of these reforms appears to be in trouble. The only measure that seems to have a decent chance of enactment is one that porvides for (as amended) marginally less interference in administrative affairs by school board members. But the good news is districts don’t have to wait on the pay issue; state law already allows for per diem pay (maximum of $50 for 144 days, which would be below their current pay of $800 a month). Also, districts (as some have) can impose their own term limits.

Unfortunately, local school board members have hollered about these changes to stymie most of them, yet the fact is the buck stops with them and all the evidence points to their districts being underserved. It’s hard to see how these kinds of changes could make the quality of education being delivered in these districts worse, so if the legislature can't get these through, it will be up to the citizenry to put pressure on at the local level to get them instituted.

No comments: