This is an extraordinary time. For the last few months people across the state and across the country have been struggling to cope with the spread of the COVID virus. In the midst of that, events from places far from Louisiana have forced us all to confront the issue of racial injustice in ways that we haven’t seen in decades. It’s an important moment for us to think about all of this, and what it means with regards to the education of our people.
Like many states, Louisiana has an equity gap in education. Because of socio-economic issues and other factors, the percentage of young black students performing at appropriate levels in reading and math are 20 points or more behind their white counterparts.
We see a similar situation with graduation rates where African-American students finish high school at a rate about 10 points behind whites. Of course, that translates to the workforce. Half of African-American adults in Louisiana have no credential beyond a high school degree. That compares with 34-percent of whites. Only 16-percent of African-Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
This highlights some very important things: 1) Louisiana’s overall level of education attainment is low, 2) our population lacks the education and training to meet workforce needs, 3) low education attainment perpetuates poverty, and 4) African-Americans, both younger and older, are disproportionately impacted by all of this.
So, one thing this moment tells us is that we have to do a better job of increasing education levels of all of our people, but especially African-Americans.
The good news is that we have plans. Before the pandemic, Louisiana seemed poised to increase its investment in early education to assist economically-disadvantaged families. That’s a good thing. We also have a highly-regarded education framework that assists every school district in developing education improvement plans focused on equity and raising the education attainment levels of historically-underserved students.
And in higher education, the Board of Regents has a Master Plan that targets both high school students and working-age adults to help them upgrade their education and skills with the goal of accessing high-wage jobs leading to greater prosperity.
All of these plans are good. All of them can work. But they won’t have a chance unless we raise the level of urgency around them and implement them with fidelity. It is unfortunate that the COVID crisis re-directed the discussions we could have had about all of this during the 2020 legislative session. But it’s not too late.
As we join the country in considering the racial disparities and injustices in our state, we should also make a commitment to doing something about it. One proven way is to focus on more equitable educational opportunities for our people. That would ensure that this moment of collective reflection does not go to waste.