Business should step up on schooling


Article Highlights

  • Baton Rouge's economy deemed the new economic development rock star in the South

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  • EBRPSS spending more than $400 million a year--needs to do much better

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  • Business leaders serious about school improvement help ensure educators use new resources to transform public education

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Baton Rouge's economy has held up well enough through the great recession that Southern Business & Development has deemed it "the new economic development rock star in the South." While unemployment soared nationally over the past five years, the city gained over 10,000 new jobs. The challenge: It's not clear where skilled workers will come from if this happy tale continues.

By nearly every measure, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System (EBRPSS)--the state's largest district, spending more than $400 million a year--needs to do much better. A 2010 BRAC study noted that the district "consistently ranks near the bottom statewide in most measures of student, school, and district performance." EBR ranks 59th statewide in district-wide student performance; a little more than half of eighth graders tested proficient in English Language Arts in 2010, ten points lower than the state average, and only 60 percent of EBR high school students graduate on-time.

If Baton Rouge intends to keep its "rock star" moniker, it needs schools that are producing talent and are attractive to corporate honchos. The Baton Rouge business community can play a key role in helping to ensure that EBR is doing just that. Here are a few lessons drawn from a hard look at locales where business is helping to lead the way on K-12 schooling.

Baton Rouge voters have approved four millage increases since 1998, yielding an extra billion dollars for EBRPSS.

Partnership Is a Two-Way Street. Working with school districts doesn't mean carrying their water; it means identifying shared objectives and pursuing them jointly. Business leaders should demand that, in return for their support, school leaders scour budgets, overhaul operations, and commit to clear performance targets. Baton Rouge voters have approved four millage increases since 1998, yielding an extra billion dollars for EBRPSS. Yet it's not clear what EBRPSS has delivered in return. By driving a tougher bargain, business can pour some steel into the backbone of district leaders and ensure that new dollars aren't just subsidizing an unacceptable status quo.

Be the Ballast Amidst District Turmoil. It's no secret that districts can be revolving doors --with frequent changes in leadership and direction. This can mean that strategies are abandoned before implemented, priorities are shifted as soon as they are adopted, and employees are buffeted by indecision. Business can help combat this tendency by playing the role of tough-love neighbor, and pushing the school board to stay the course on the strategy they have adopted. Starr Hermann, a director at Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, said, "I believe [our reforms] would have died if we hadn't had business pushing from the outside.

Provide Expertise. Business has a prominent and trusted role in the community, making it possible to both support district leaders and hold them accountable. EBR recently approved $33.3 million worth of budget cuts for the 2011-2012, and is looking at $94 million in cuts over the next four years. Business leaders know a bit about streamlining operations, and are in a position to share expertise in finances, HR systems, information technology, and accountability with school officials dealing with budget deficits. In Austin, a group of elite chief financial officers meet regularly with the CFO of the Austin Independent School District.

Business leaders serious about school improvement will drive harder bargains with state officials and school district educators, help steady the rudder, provide expertise, and help ensure that educators use new resources and tools to transform--and not merely subsidize--public education. Baton Rouge's bright prospects depend on the ability of its schools to educate and produce the twenty-first century talent the city needs. It's time for Baton Rouge business leaders to roll up their sleeves and help get that done.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies and Whitney Downs is a research assistant at AEI.

1.Council for a Better Louisiana, “A Snapshot of East Baton Rouge Parish Schools” (Baton Rouge, LA: The Baton Rouge Area Chamber FuturePAC, September 2010).

2.East Baton Rouge Parish School System, “District Snapshot,” cfm/performancescores/, January 2011.

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