by Pete Cook
When the Democratic candidate for Governor, John Bel Edwards, met with the Editorial Board of Lafayette’s Daily Advertiser on Tuesday to explain how “things would be different in an Edwards administration,” the two-term State Representative had a lot to say about the state of public education in Louisiana.
Some of the points he made were commendable, like his support for a stable higher education funding model that would avoid the fiscal nightmare our state’s public universities suffered through earlier this spring. However, as we’ve seen recently, when the subject turned to K-12 education, Edwards – who believes he’s “the engineer who can put the engine back on the tracks” – instead went off the rails. For example, The Advertiser reported:
“Edwards said he embraces the state’s push for higher standards for K-12 education, but not the process the state has chosen to pursue them. He said he’s for accountability, but believes letter grades are unfair to schools with high percentages of impoverished children. Teachers are too often compelled to teach to the test, he said, and who can blame them? Their jobs depend on it.”
While Edwards’ equivocal positions on high academic standards and accountability pose a problem, I was more disappointed that he proceeded to trot out the old “poverty trumps education” argument, one of the teachers unions’ favorite talking points:
“For example, he said, his own son’s school, where his wife teaches music, drew an ‘F’ letter grade from the state, but he said poverty, not teachers, was what undermined that public school. Teachers there were ‘fine,’ he said, but most of the students came from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
In effect, Edwards is saying we we should lower our expectations for certain children just because they happen to come from poor families.
Let’s examine John Bel Edwards’ statement for a moment. It’s true that Amite Elementary Magnet School, where his wife Donna worked until recently, does serve a high proportion of low-income students. In 2014, over 95% of the school’s students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. On the other hand, Amite Elementary received a “D” in 2013-14 (S.Y. 2014-15 haven’t been issued yet) and a School Performance Score (SPS) of 54.7 (out of 150) – i.e., the school is not designated as failing as Edwards claims.
However, the more important question is whether a “D” grade and a SPS of 54.7 is the most we should expect from a school where the students are nearly all low-income. To test that, I decided to look at 2014 data of New Orleans public schools where 95% of students were free/reduced lunch eligible. Here’s what I found:
|LEA||School||%FRPL||2014 Grade||2014 SPS||2013 Grade||2013 SPS|
|Tangipahoa||Amite Elementary Magnet School||>95%||D||54.7||F||49.6|
|RSD||KIPP Central City Academy||>95%||B||95.2||B||96.9|
|OPSB||Mary Bethune Elementary||>95%||B||93.7||B||88.1|
|OPSB||Mahalia Jackson Elementary School||>95%||B||93.7||B||88.1|
|RSD||Martin Behrman Elementary School||>95%||B||93.3||B||92.1|
|OPSB||Robert Russa Moton Charter School||>95%||B||86.7||D||61.9|
|RSD||Esperanza Charter School||>95%||B||85.6||C||75.3|
|RSD||Lagniappe Academy of New Orleans||>95%||C||82.3||B||85|
|RSD||ReNew SciTech Academy at Laurel||>95%||C||81.6||C||75|
|RSD||Arthur Ashe Charter School||>95%||C||81.2||B||90.2|
|RSD||James M. Singleton Charter School||>95%||C||80.8||D||56.9|
|RSD||Akili Academy of New Orleans||>95%||C||80||C||71.6|
|RSD||KIPP Central City Primary||>95%||C||78||C||75.2|
|RSD||Langston Hughes Charter Academy||>95%||C||77.6||C||81.3|
|RSD||Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence||>95%||C||75.9||D||64.1|
|RSD||Samuel J. Green Charter School||>95%||C||74||C||78.4|
|RSD||Sophie B. Wright Learning Academy||>95%||C||73.9||B||88.5|
|RSD||Cohen College Prep||>95%||C||72.9||D||63.5|
|RSD||Mary D. Coghill Charter School||>95%||C||69.7||NA||NA|
|RSD||Nelson Elementary School||>95%||D||67.3||C||79.5|
|RSD||McDonogh City Park Academy||>95%||D||66.4||C||77.6|
|RSD||Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep||>95%||T||66.1||NA||NA|
|RSD||Fannie C. Williams Charter School||>95%||D||64.8||T||75.7|
|RSD||McDonogh #32 Elementary School||>95%||D||64.4||C||70.9|
|RSD||Harriet Tubman Charter School||>95%||D||63||T||72.7|
|RSD||ReNew Dolores T. Aaron Elementary||>95%||D||62.5||T||64.4|
|RSD||McDonogh 42 Charter School||>95%||T||58.3||T||39.4|
|RSD||William J. Fischer Elementary School||>95%||D||56.8||C||76|
|RSD||ReNew Schaumburg Elementary||>95%||T||55.7||NA||NA|
|RSD||ReNew Cultural Arts Academy at Live Oak||>95%||D||55||D||60.1|
In short, there were 31 public schools in New Orleans that scored higher than Amite Elementary in 2014, even though nearly all of their kids were low-income. What’s more, some schools in New Orleans, like Mary Bethune Elementary, are knocking the cover off the ball. Nearly 80% of Bethune students were performing at or above grade level in 2014, as opposed to only 46% of students at Amite Elementary.
Now, I’m not raising these facts to denigrate the hard work of Donna Edwards or her former colleagues at Amite Elementary Magnet School. I’m also not saying that poverty doesn’t present considerable challenges for educators – as a former teacher in New Orleans’ public schools, I’ve faced those very challenges.
Nevertheless, it’s clear there are many public schools in Louisiana’s low-income communities where students are beating John Bel Edwards’ low expectations hands down. We live in a state with one of the highest levels of child poverty in the country and we can’t allow our politicians to simply those write those kids off because it’s politically expedient.
This post was originally published on PE+CO on September 17, 2015.