Lions speaker says money won’t fix education system

By Pat Culverhouse

Daniel J. Erspamer, CEO of the think-tank Pelican Institute for Public Policy, sees an education system in Louisiana in need of improvement and more money doesn’t appear to be the answer to filling in the cracks.

Speaking to members of the Minden Lions Club, Erspamer pointed to numbers that show problems in the system which need to be addressed on both state and local levels.

“Thirty-three is the percentage of Louisiana school children that are reading and doing math at grade levels,” he said. “There are only three parishes in the state where more than half the children are achieving grade levels. This is a genuine crisis.”

Erspamer said he’s criticizing neither teachers nor administrators, and he told Lions members that money isn’t the problem.

“The state spends more money on education than neighboring states, about $14,000 on average for every kid in the public education system,” he said. “Yet, we have worse outcomes (testing) and we spend less on teachers. It begs the question, why?”

He said the first public education system was created in Massachusetts in the 17th century, “…and the way we deliver public education hasn’t changed much…” despite changing times and changing needs of the students.

“Every kid learns profoundly different and even the best school is not going to work for some kids. If we commit to public education to deliver for the public good we have to commit that every child has access to a school that fits,” Erspamer said. “One size does not fit all.”

Committing to public education means to do so in a way that provides opportunity for each student, he said, whether it’s public, private, parochial, charter or home-school. Plans include allowing parental choice, like the long-running Florida model.

“Taking the dollars and going to other settings have dramatically better outcomes,” Erspamer explained. “Teachers are getting better pay, schools competing for better students are also competing for the best teachers. You deliver a better product when there’s a better market.”

Erspamer predicted the issue will be a hot topic in the next legislative session.

To show the depth of what he called an educational crisis, Erspamer said 10,000 kids a year who leave public schools on a college track enter Louisiana colleges needing remedial courses before they can start on a basic college level.

“In Louisiana, 24 of 69 school districts have fewer than 25 percent of students reading and doing math at grade level,” he said. Despite those numbers, Erspamer said the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) recently passed a disturbing rule.

“BESE’s rule would allow students who don’t reach what we call ‘approaching basic level,’ which is one step above ‘unsatisfactory,’ to have an alternate way to get a diploma,” he said. To achieve ‘approaching basic level’ requires the student to get 14 to 30 percent of test questions correct to pass.

That alternate path to a diploma would require the student to do a project which will be graded by the teacher, Erspamer said.

“This is a participation trophy of high school diplomas,” he said. “We just set standards aside.”

A legislative committee hearing was scheduled to discuss the BESE ruling and Erspamer predicts that ruling will be set aside. “We will see what the new governor decides,” he said.”

Despite the challenges, Erspamer said he was optimistic based on results of the recent elections.

“The voters have said we want change, but the way we get these changes across the finish line is by talking to our lawmakers,” he continued. “We need to make sure they know what we want, not what the special interests want. Truth is, we have access to achieve…to be engaged and take a stance. Debate gets us the right answers.”