An education forum hosted by The Daily Advertiser and Louisiana Progress Monday night highlights two very different paths toward education reform, as some local stakeholders touted Superintendent Pat Cooper’s turnaround plan as a “silver bullet” for Lafayette Parish public schools while a state lawmaker somewhat defended the state’s new voucher program and other measures the Legislature took this session to turn around Louisiana’s failing system.

Speakers at the Louisiana Progress/Advertiser forum included Lafayette Parish School System Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau; UL Lafayette President Joseph Savoie; Board of Elementary and Secondary Education representative Holly Boffy; United Way of Acadiana President and LaPESC member Margaret Trahan; state Sen. Page Cortez of Lafayette; Lafayette Parish School Board President Shelton Cobb; retired teacher Melinda Mangham, and former BESE member Mary Washington.

Locally, the community has watched a group of outside stakeholders some 6,000 strong come together in the form of the Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council, a local education advocacy group that played an integral role in bringing Cooper to Lafayette and helping the new super to shape the district’s six-year plan to transform the district from the ‘C’ grade it currently maintains to the ‘A’ system he envisions.

“[The turnaround plan] is our silver bullet in Lafayette Parish; the challenge in all of this is the political will to see it through,” United Way’s Trahan said. “That plan captures what the community's hopes and aspirations are. It's our challenge to sustain the momentum and engage in the political conversations that need to happen. That way  it becomes a reality instead of being picked apart by its opponents.”

LPSS’ Billeaudeau, taking Trahan’s comment a step further, described it as “having skin in the game.”

“We have to put mechanisms in place to support and uplift teachers, not suppress them,” Billeaudeau said. “We're asking them to join us in this unique opportunity to make a difference, because 30 percent dropout rate is unacceptable. A 20 percent dropout rate at Lafayette High is absolutely unacceptable. Until we get bull mad and say enough is enough, we have to do this for the growth of our community, that's when true change comes.”

On a state level, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s signature education reform package sailed through the legislative process with ease, paving the way for more charter schools, more hiring and firing power for superintendents and, among numerous other measures, the drastic statewide expansion of a voucher program in New Orleans that sends low-income students to private schools on the public’s dime.

The voucher program has been by far the most controversial of Jindal’s measures, as the administration now finds itself defending three lawsuits filed against the state over the constitutionality of the voucher program and Jindal’s state Superintendent of Education John White continues to take the heat for the lack of accountability measures put in place for private schools accepting voucher students.

“The effect [the voucher program] is going to have, no one really knows,” Cortez admitted during the forum. “Don't have C, D and F schools in your district and you won't have movement to private schools.”

It’s an assertion that Lafayette High School teacher and recent National Education Association Foundation award finalist Rodolfo Espinoza publicly questioned during Monday’s forum.

“We constantly hear about failing schools and schools failing kids. I believe there's a slight focus problem,” said. “Shouldn't we be saying we have schools with large percentage of students having problems? The current system does nothing but penalize and hemorrhage those schools to death. Shouldn't we focus resources like a laser beam, which is what's taking place at Northside, statewide? The school systems with the greatest academic achievement in the world have the least privatization.”

Washington, a retired BESE member, pointed out that “a lot of people have blamed Bobby Jindal for the debacle.”

“I don’t blame the governor. That’s what governors are supposed to do,” she said. “They're supposed to come up with the most grandiose ideas they can think of and put it out there. It's the job of the Board of Education and the Legislature to vet those ideas and to ensure that the public treasury is protected. If, in fact, they have not increased the size of the legislative auditor's office both in funds and personnel, we're going to have some problems. There is no way we have enough people working at  the Department of Education to regulate all we have opened up.”

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