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Defying Expectations: Jefferson Parish Public Schools

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Part I: Introduction to JPPSS: The first installment in a four-part series exploring the reform of the Jefferson Parish Public School System

JPPSS.Logo

Louisiana has garnered national recognition in recent years for “putting students first in its education policies,” and for its leadership in education reform. While much of this attention has focused on the transformation of New Orleans’ public schools, you might be surprised to hear what State Superintendent of Education John White said about neighboring Jefferson Parish: “I think this is one of the most exciting places for public education in Louisiana. This is the largest school system in the state, and in that way what Jefferson does is a message you send to the rest of the state.”

White has good reason to be excited about the example set by Jefferson Parish. In the space of just three years, the Jefferson Parish Public School System (JPPSS) has emerged as one of the most improved school districts in Louisiana. As recently as the 2010-11 school year, JPPSS ranked 51st out of 70 districts in the state based on academic performance. Nearly 40% of the district’s 8th graders were below basic in ELA and Math on Louisiana’s LEAP test and approximately 30% of high school seniors were failing to graduate on time. In addition, the district faced the potential takeover of several its schools, 59 of which were graded “D” or “F” by the Louisiana Department of Education.

However, in the course of the past two years, JPPSS has witnessed a startling turnaround thanks to a series of bold reform initiatives spearheaded by Superintendent James Meza. The district’s performance has increased in almost every grade and subject area, and in particular, among district’s long-underserved African-American and special education populations. And just this month, Jefferson Parish officials announced that the number failing schools in the district had fallen from a high of 18 in 2010 to only 4 this past school year.*

While much attention has been given to the “New Orleans Miracle,” the turnaround in neighboring Jefferson Parish Public Schools has implications for districts across the country.

While much attention has been given to the “New Orleans Miracle,” the turnaround in neighboring Jefferson Parish Public Schools has implications for districts across the country.

What makes these gains particularly noteworthy is the fact they have been achieved within the context of a traditional, school board-governed district. In this sense, the lessons from Jefferson Parish have broader application than those of the “New Orleans Miracle,” where officials had the singular opportunity to rebuild the school system after Katrina. In contrast, the reforms in Jefferson Parish were developed by district leaders and implemented with the support of the school board and community.

As those involved in public education know, JPPSS is an all-too-rare example of successful “reform-from-within,” which raises an important question: Why did Jefferson Parish succeed where innumerable other districts have failed? With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to identify three key factors that made the reforms in JPPSS possible:

  1. Community Investment: There was a recognition in the community that the school system needed reform, as reflected in the election of a pro-reform slate of candidates to the school board.
  2. Determined Leadership: JPPSS Superintendent James Meza began implementing long-overdue changes almost immediately after his appointment, all-the-while carefully building support for a comprehensive reform plan.
  3. Strategic Planning: Jefferson Parish partnered with Mass Insight Education to develop a comprehensive reorganization plan that reoriented the district around the needs of schools and students.

In subsequent posts over the next week, we will look at each of these elements in greater detail to examine the critical roles that each factor played in Jefferson Parish’s transformation.

Check back on Thursday for Part II on the role of community investment in Jefferson Parish schools.


* Only one of these four schools is a traditional JPPSS school; the rest are temporary alternative schools that students attend while on expulsion.

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog, In The Zone.

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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Louisiana

AFT On The Bayou Union Spends Less In Louisiana, But More On Charter Organizing in New Orleans

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The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) spent less overall in Louisiana in the past fiscal year than it did in F.Y. 2016, but the union boosted its funding for charter school organizing efforts in New Orleans by more than forty percent.

An analysis of expenditure data from AFT’s 2017 annual report to U.S. Department of Labor shows that the union spent $2,326,573 in Louisiana during the fiscal year that ended June 30th, a slight decrease from the from $2.49 million it spent in the state in 2016.

About a quarter of AFT’s spending went to political activities, which included nearly $125,000 in payments to the political action committee of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, as well as a $15,000 contribution to Defend Louisiana, a super PAC behind Foster Campbell’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate last fall. In addition, AFT spent nearly $370,000 to influence last year’s Orleans Parish School Board elections, as I exposed in a previous blog post in January.

A diagram showing the distribution of AFT’s F.Y. 2017 spending in Louisiana.

AFT also invested heavily in organizing activities across the Bayou State. It gave nearly $192,000 to Red River United to support recruitment in Bossier, Caddo, and Red River Parishes. AFT spent another $184,000 on organizing in Monroe and $147,000 in Jefferson Parish.

Furthermore, AFT’s most recent annual report suggests that the union is stepping up its efforts to organize charter schools in the Big Easy. In F.Y 2017, AFT national poured $412,926 into its New Orleans Charter Organizing Project, a significant increase from the $292,000 it allocated in 2016. In all, AFT spent more than $850,000 on its New Orleans-based activities in the past year.

Although their recruitment efforts in the city have had mixed success, AFT’s willingness to spend substantial sums of money in New Orleans makes clear they still pose a serious threat. Over the past four years, AFT has steered more than $1.6 million to organize New Orleans charter schools and roll back the city’s reforms.

We need to remain vigilant to ensure that never happens.


Explore the data:


Read AFT’s 2017 annual report:

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A Victory For Pettiness Over Progress Why Did The Governor Veto A Common Sense Education Bill?

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On Friday, Louisiana lawmakers voted to cancel a veto session to override Governor John Bel Edwards’ rejection of a number of bills passed by the legislature during this year’s regular session. The move was expected even though many Republican legislators accused the Governor of using his veto power to punish lawmakers who have consistently opposed his agenda.

Although the Governor’s line-item vetoes of construction projects in the state budget aroused the most controversy, the press largely overlooked his rejection of House Bill 568, a proposal from State Rep. Nancy Landry which would have revised the state’s student data privacy law.

Some background on H.B. 568

The story of House Bill 568 has its origins in a conversation I had last spring with a friend who works at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. For years, CREDO has produced highly regarded studies on the effectiveness of the state’s charter schools using data provided by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE). However, in 2015, LDOE officials informed CREDO they could no longer provide access to that information due to changes in the state’s student data privacy law, passed by the legislature in 2014, which prohibited the department from sharing data with research institutions outside of Louisiana.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford has published highly regarded studies on the effectiveness of charter schools.

Without access to student performance data, CREDO’s research on Louisiana’s charter schools would grind to a halt and education policymakers would lose an objective, in-depth assessment of the health of the state’s charter sector. Moreover, the refusal to share data with out-of-state researchers would mean that Louisiana’s influence on the national education policy debate would be significantly diminished.

Seeking to avoid that outcome, my friend at CREDO reached out to see if I had any ideas on how they should proceed. I connected her with State Rep. Nancy Landry, who serves as chair of the House Education Committee, to explain the situation and see if she could help. Their subsequent discussions resulted in H.B. 568, which Landry filed during this year’s regular legislative session.

State Rep. Nancy Landry (R – Lafayette), is chair of House Education Committee and has clashed with the Governor over education policy.

The bill sought to carve out an exception to the overly broad changes lawmakers made in 2014 by allowing data to be shared (in accordance with standard data privacy protection procedures) with researchers at any college or university in the United States accredited and recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. In short, H.B. 568 was limited in scope and non-controversial, as evidenced by the fact that it passed by large margins in both the House (95-3) and Senate (27-7).


Read more about how researchers use student data:

Student data privacy and education research must be balanced

Last week, the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on data privacy protections for students. Michael Hansen highlights the gravity of the debate around how Congress will update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) for use in the modern age where big data is king.


So what’s with the veto?

Which brings us to the question of why Governor Edwards vetoed the legislation, especially when it had broad bipartisan support. Let’s start with the “official” rationale provided by the Governor in his veto message:

“The legislation requires LDOE to enter into a memorandum of understanding in which the person conducting such academic research agrees to be civilly liable for any fine imposed as a violation of authorized uses of the student information. Under current law, a person who violates authorized uses of the student information is subject to both criminal and civil penalties. House Bill 568 references civil penalties only relative to the memorandum of understanding. However, it does not create an exception to the criminal liability provisions in current law. Because of these drafting concerns, I have vetoed House Bill 568.”

The contention that the Governor felt compelled to veto the bill over a technicality – i.e., it didn’t create an explicit exception to the criminal liability provision in the current law – is unconvincing. Even though H.B. 568 didn’t specifically address criminal liability, it’s not at all clear that it necessarily needed to do so. In any case, from a practical standpoint, it is highly unlikely that a prosecutor would pursue a misdemeanor conviction – as opposed to a civil fine – against an employee of an out-of-state research institution. In fact, to my knowledge, no one has ever faced criminal charges in Louisiana for violating the state’s student data privacy law. It’s also worth noting that the Governor’s Office never raised this concern as H.B. 568 was winding its way through the legislature and could have been amended.

The Governor’s Office never raised concerns about H.B. 568 as it was making its way through the legislature.

When taken together, the facts suggest that the decision to veto House Bill 568 had little to do with the content of the legislation and more to do with its author. Rep. Landry has clashed with the Governor repeatedly over education policy in recent years and several of the Governor’s school-related proposals have died in the House Education Committee, which Landry chairs. Although Edwards would not be the first governor to use his veto pen to punish lawmakers who opposed his agenda, it makes no sense to apply it to a bill as innocuous and apolitical as H.B. 568, especially seeing that Rep. Landry had nothing to gain by sponsoring the legislation.

Nevertheless, Governor Edwards did just that. Thanks to his veto, Louisiana’s overly broad and mind-numbingly parochial student data privacy law remains in force. Out-of-state academics who want to study our public schools will be told to look elsewhere. And as a result, our public education system won’t be able to benefit from the knowledge and insights their research would provide.


Read House Bill 568:


Read the Governor’s Veto Message:

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