Confronting the Sacred Cows: How We Can REALLY Change Louisiana (Part 2)
Guest Post By State Representative Chuck Owen
This is Part Two of a two part series from State Representative Chuck Owen.
Part 2: The Sacred Cows
Item 4: Education---K-12 and Higher Education
One of the sacred cows we MUST confront is what we as a State have done to our K-12 public education system. Over the course of the past 40 years, the State has tinkered and tinkered and reformed and changed and tinkered and set up metrics and tinkered and created accountability systems and tinkered and set up other accountability systems and we’ve just done about everything under the sun to try and make things better for our public-school system. Some might say we’ve usually achieved the opposite of what we intended. Ask a teacher who has been around 20-30 years about the accountability and testing systems and see what they tell you. LTEP? LTEF? Common Core? New Math? Eureka. High Stakes Testing? Bueller? Anyone?
Well-meaning people who’ve had bright ideas have repeatedly messed with our public schools, and ultimately made miserable our teachers and stunted the development and progress of our school age children. There are pockets of excellence in our state, and the leaders and families in those areas should be honored for hanging on and succeeding despite the harassment and never-ending meddling from Baton Rouge.
The time for analyzing the past and blaming the people who brought these things on is over. We don’t have time for it. Every day that goes by and we aren’t doing what we need to do in solidifying our school structure is an opportunity lost. I’d just as soon never speak of those folks again and get to the business of educating our students.
In the past 3 years, we HAVE had good news in our K-12 public education system. We’ve had good news for several reasons, but one of them is our current Superintendent. Dr. Cade Brumley is a professional educator and a teacher’s teacher. He is heading down the path of righting our ship and we as a state need to listen to him and let him do his thing. Brumley believes in returning to education fundamentals. He believes our focus should be on the core principles of education---ensuring our students can read, write, can do math, understand science, learn (actual) history and think critically. The results are coming in and we are going in the right direction. I hope we can empower him and let him do his thing.
And yes, we need to pay careful attention to our students with special needs. That’s a topic all unto itself but it is our responsibility and obligation to see to ALL of our citizens.
One of the sacred cows we need to confront in the legislature is the extraneous requirements that we’ve put on our teachers. Our law (revised statutes) are filled (littered) with well-meaning “one more thing” requirements we’ve placed on the agenda of school systems and thus teachers each year. While the list is not endless, it adds up and many of the items are things that are much better left taught or dealt with in our homes. This is going to get a close look in the upcoming legislature.
A second but related item is the invasive evaluation system that restrains the creativity of our teachers and creates a façade of accountability. This is a long topic, but in short, we need to certainly evaluate our teachers and make sure the proficient ones are empowered more than ever to do what they want to do---TEACH. For the ones who need assistance, we need to assist them, but programmed and scheduled evaluations are a joke that create a metrics that is easily manipulated. We need to do something else. I’m betting Dr. Brumley has an idea.
Another is our addiction to and reliance on federal money to run our school systems. With federal money comes federal strings and requirements. If the US government is giving us money to run our school systems and they require anything that is antithetical to our values as a state, then we need to find a way to extricate ourselves from their invasiveness. The State of Tennessee is doing such a thing right now and we need to pay attention and maybe mirror their actions if we can.
The last sacred cow is our fascination with a high stakes testing system. I’m good with ACT, ACT Work Keys, and annual assessments. But we MUST find a way to stop the madness of yearlong testing preparation that detracts from helping our teachers educate our children. There are a lot of reasons we have a teacher shortage, and this is certainly one of them. Hoping BESE will confront this insanity. If they won’t, the legislature just might.
And yes, we need better pay for our classroom teachers. We need to find ways to trim actual fat from the overall state system. We have to find a way to utilize the high amount we spend per pupil in a way that compensates our teachers and school employees in a more competitive fashion.
In higher education, we need to ensure our universities and technical training pathways are funded and well-managed. We need leadership in our systems that reflect Louisiana and foster an environment of learning and scholarship, but not indoctrination. We need high quality professors, researchers, and leaders. Our public universities need to be for citizens of Louisiana first and do not need to be safe havens for foreign agents who come here with any objective outside the bounds of academia, the free exchange of ideas and the good of the United States of American and Louisiana. We need to ensure freedom of thought and freedom of speech are the benchmarks for our institutions. And for the record, I’m good with tenure. I’m not good with intellectual abuse of students or stifling academic freedom or freedom of expression. The sacred cow here is deciding if we’re maximizing what we’re doing on our campuses and if Louisiana’s taxpayers are getting what they think they’re getting in our plethora of institutions.
Item 5: The Constitution
In the opinion of some, many of the problems we face in Louisiana are tied to our Constitution. Since we were admitted to the union over two centuries ago, we’ve had 11 Constitutions. Yes, eleven. The one we currently have was approved in 1974. The framework of this Constitution is one of our key impediments to changing our state for the better.
Our Constitution is the framework of how our government functions, and it is the foundation of stability or cause for instability. The Constitution we currently have was created in a multi-year fashion in the early 70s. The process for re-doing it is believed to be in-depth and too hard by some. Our Constitution has been amended over 200 times since 1974. In contrast the US Constitution has been amended 27 times in 230+ years.
The Louisiana Constitution is fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons. These reasons cause consternation among our public directly and indirectly. Directly, our citizenry gets angry every fall when they walk into voting booths and find 2, 3 or more “Constitutional Amendments” that they must support or oppose. Citizens then get angry and ask legislators “what are we sending you down there for?” in an insinuation that representatives and senators are passing the buck to them on hard decisions. To make matters worse, the amendments usually read like a regulation from the Soviet version of the Department of Revenue and Bureaucracy. By the time an amendment makes it to the public, it’s been pored over by lawyers and bureaucrats and ends up usually unintelligible.
As a legislator, I don’t mind explaining the reason for these amendments each year to our citizens. But, at a 90 percent level, these things are NOT Constitutional amendments in the sense we understand if you compare them to our federal constitution. These amendments could just as easily be laws that legislators ought to be voting on up or down. This process needs to change.
A much more critical and bothersome thing that is tied to our Constitution is the permanent and untouchable nature of spending that becomes codified in our annual budget. Once something is placed in our budget, it’s next to impossible to modify, reduce, or eliminate. We have structural restraints that throw the state in a place of pandemonium when financial crisis befalls us. In short, the only elements of the state’s annual budget that can be modified on a yearly basis are money for higher education and money for the state’s hospital system. That’s it. Once something is in the permanent budget, it can’t come out or even be put on pause while we deal with other emergencies. While this is great for the stability of those agencies and their employees and maybe even some citizens, it handcuffs the ability of the state to face emergencies or crises.
The State needs a new Constitution. Whether or not we need the whole thing re-worked is a topic all unto itself. But we MUST re-work big parts and pieces of it that harm the public and handcuff the ability of elected officials to make decisions on behalf of the public.
In truth, elected officials over time have done very little to build the trust of the public. Some of the safeguards for forcing the public into approving tax increases or any change to the tax structure are in place because of shenanigans of previous legislatures and governors. This is an element of the debate that we must have. But, we HAVE to do something. The sacred cow of the 74 Constitution must be confronted if we want to move forward.
Section 6: The State Construction Budget
The final item for consideration is the prioritization for how we build and maintain our state’s infrastructure. The process for identifying, screening, voting for, getting a governor to approve (or veto) and then actually FUNDING a bridge, building, road, water system, highway, etc is byzantine of the highest order. The framework for prioritizing and the nomenclature used to identify priorities would make the heart of the most committed bureaucrat swell with pride. We mix road and bridge and other public works projects with things that are emphatically not public works and then lump them all into one budget package. We appropriate money for quasi and non-government organizations in a fashion that is, on one hand embarrassing and on the other hand, heart bending.
In the Fiscal Year 2024 budget, Louisiana allocated money either in infrastructure or supplemental appropriations budgets for things that are, at best, questionable. Some are, on their face, questionable without doubt. Some are embarrassing, some are actually important. What we have to do going forward is decide what we want to do with our scarce public dollars. Our roads, bridges, ports, public water systems, hospitals and other things that truly serve public purposes merit our highest attention. If we become prosperous and operate consistently in a surplus and our roads are fixed and our other infrastructure is significantly improved, then we can go on to other things. But spending on dog parks, athletic fields, meeting halls, already-funded museums, and band uniforms need to be put on the back burner until our state is in better shape. Assisting our municipalities repairing their infrastructure needs to be prioritized over pet projects. Funding our universities and prioritizing our future should come in front of the dubious items we’ve poured money on for what seems like forever.
Finally, we MUST stop using the construction budgets in our state as carrots and sticks. The last two chief executives (Jindal and Edwards) bludgeoned communities because those communities happen to have had legislators who opposed the occupant of the Governor’s mansion. Jindal and Edwards both hurt citizens and communities when they had personal problems or disagreements with legislators who dared challenge them. It is my hope that Governor Landry put this Huey Long style practice in the ash bin of Louisiana’s history. People around Louisiana have suffered long enough at the hands of thin-skinned politicians and it needs to stop.
Item 7: Lots of other things.
Invariably, someone will read this say “what about crime?” Or “see, I knew you weren’t serious about Constitutional Carry.” Or “Why didn’t you bring up vaccines?” Or “You forgot to talk about X, Y. or Z.” Rest assured, if you’re reading this, that MANY things are on the table in the coming 4 years. We have a limitless menu of things we need to address in Louisiana, including crime, including the protection of our liberties, health care, retirement, etc., etc., etc. I just knew if I didn’t stop somewhere, the publishers of this website or newspaper wouldn’t give me a chance and would tell me to go write a book. I’ll do that later. For now, just know everything is on the table---with the main one being CHANGING LOUISIANA for the better.
Acknowledging the existence of the sacred cows is the first step in confronting them. Anyone who has studied Louisiana knows all of these problems are real. How we confront and fix each of them is the task in front of us all. We as a people have to be willing to admit these problems are real and then have to decide if we really want to craft solutions to these problems---or sacred cows. This legislator stands ready to start and assist in this effort in any way that is moral, legal and ethical. Let’s go.
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