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Forgoing money doesn't mean not pursuing reforms

As did many school districts in Louisiana in the first round of selection, both Bossier and Caddo opted out of joining in the state’s application for the federal Race to the Top program this time also. If that wasn’t a mistake, then not emulating it surely is.

The program would rain extra money upon participating states, of which Louisiana is considered a likely recipient. The dollar amount depends upon many things, but it is not unreasonable that the state could receive, given predicted participation, around $175 million from it, half of which would go to the districts themselves, meaning Bossier and Caddo probably turned away at least $10-20 million for next year and possibly three additional.

The state's three largest districts chose to go for it, with Caddo being the largest not to and Bossier the fourth largest not to. Caddo, ranked 43rd (of 69) in accountability, was the tenth lowest not to buy in, while Bossier, ranked 15th, had only two higher-ranking districts opt in. Tellingly, 74 of the state’s 77 charter schools are all in – including both Shreveport schools that this year became charter schools after Caddo did not have what it took to improve them sufficiently. The program objectives are enhancing standards and assessments, improving the collection and use of data, increasing teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in teacher distribution and turning around struggling schools.

Bossier declined first at the end of last year, voicing their concern that it would have to continue to pay for programs funded by this money after the four years were up. While money for general district improvement was available, given the lack of struggling schools in the district its School Board believed the improvement funds were not enough and with too many strings to justify taking them.

Caddo chose not to apply just before the deadline about a month later. A sentiment pushed by Superintendant Gerald Dawkins, it stated the requirements were too nebulous, despite assertions by state Superintendant Paul Pastorek to the contrary, and that a specific one in particular, tying half of teacher evaluations to growth in student achievement, was too obnoxious.

The latter complaint especially and obviously had drawn the ire of both local teachers unions the Caddo Association of Educators and the Caddo Federation of Teachers, despite the fact that in the case of the latter the state organization had endorsed it. The Bossier Association of Educators followed the lead of its state organization also and had been against applying, while the School Board there mimicked the objection from its state association concerning future financing.

While these criticisms may merit turning down this particular program, in no way do they invalidate the ideas behind it. As was pointed out previously by Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Chas Roemer, the reforms being talked of as part of Race to the Top are ones that can be done anyway by the state or by districts. Further, many of them would cost little to nothing, so lack of funds that could have come from the federal government really is no obstacle to implementing these.

Perhaps the single most valuable innovation was the very one cited by Caddo as foundering its potential bid, changes in evaluating teachers so they depend upon not things like how many years one has been in the system, how neatly arranged their lesson plans are, or how friendly they are with the principal, but on actual merit. And merit is best measured by how much the teachers know about the subjects they teach and how much the students they teach know.

This was why the local unions so bitterly resisted the program, as well as many in the education establishment. They don’t want these evaluation measures to expose how inadequate are some teachers in subject area knowledge, or how other agendas get in the way of the extra work some would have to put in or the imposition of increased discipline many want that are necessary to improve things. While Louisiana’s accountability program has made some strides in forcing higher expectations that demand more of (and thereby create more work of and require greater knowledge from) teachers, evaluating their employment status and pay on subject area testing and student achievement will complete the process.

These are the kinds of things that Bossier and Caddo could do on their own – if majorities of their boards truly wanted to do the hard political work to overcome the inertia of the unions, bureaucracy, and attitudes of those like Dawkins who disgracefully resisted the state’s takeover of the two failed schools that allowed them to become charter schools and angled to put obstacles in the way of their independent success. That’s because he and several board members fear that the charter schools – unafraid to take this money because they already are implementing many of the suggestions drawn up by the state to qualify for the money – will show up the district by turning these schools around through doing things such as putting children’s outcomes ahead of politics when it comes to teacher quality.

Just because the money isn’t taken – now or through reapplication – doesn’t mean the ideas behind it shouldn’t be implemented, especially regarding teacher evaluation. Watered-down legislation is churning forward to make this easier. School board members who are true advocates of quality education and seriously desire it must step up to make that happen.

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