On Sunday, former Governor Kathleen Blanco lost a long battle with cancer. Sadly, her passing was not unexpected. In December, while being honored for her service to Louisiana at CABL’s annual meeting, she told the crowd that there was no escape from the disease and that “the monster is not far down the road.” With her passing Louisiana has lost a trailblazing governor who cared passionately about the people, and especially, the children of our state.
Today all of the obituaries focus on her administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. That’s understandable because it remains one of the worst disasters ever to hit a major American city. How the state handled the storm and its aftermath is still being debated and, as often happens, the harsh critiques of the time have moderated some over the years.
But one thing that should not be forgotten in our remembrances of Governor Blanco is her enduring legacy in education.
For more years than anyone can remember, one of the state’s top education goals was to bring Louisiana’s miserly teacher pay scales to the southern average. Governor Blanco was the governor who actually did it. The same is true in higher education where she led the way to fund our universities at the southern regional average. Yes, Louisiana was fortunate at the time to have the revenues available to do that, but her actions reflected her priorities and they remain major accomplishments of her administration.
But her real courage in the education arena stood out on another issue – one that had the potential to hurt her politically, but also make a lasting impact on hundreds of thousands of children. It was her decision in the aftermath of Katrina to push legislation to take the failing public schools in New Orleans and turn their management over to the fledgling state Recovery School District.
It was a bold move that has since paid measurable dividends. CABL was there at the time and it’s hard to overstate how politically risky that was for the governor. While CABL and others supported the change, many of Governor Blanco’s strongest allies and supporters were vehemently against it. They lobbied hard for her to maintain the status quo and for some time it was uncertain, at least publicly, where she would ultimately land.
But she displayed a level of political courage that is all too rare among politicians and moved forward decisively to support and oversee the transfer of almost all of New Orleans’ public schools to the state. Certainly, it was controversial at the time and there were challenges along the way. Yet it’s impossible to argue that the children who were in those schools and the ones who have followed since aren’t far better off than they were when New Orleans was arguably the worst performing urban school district in the country.
Under the plan that Governor Blanco and former Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard backed in 2006, virtually every public school in New Orleans became a charter school, students and families received school choice options like they never would have had otherwise, and over time student achievement improved far beyond what could have been expected had things stayed the same.
As a noted researcher from Stanford University reported in 2018, “In both reading and math there is a substantial advantage to enrolling in New Orleans charter schools compared to what those same students would have learned had they gone to traditional public schools.” Other studies have reached that same conclusion.
Today as people across Louisiana reflect on Governor Blanco’s career in politics, the things she accomplished, and the barriers she broke, we should not lose sight of her legacy in education. It is a lasting one that will continue to have a profound and positive impact on students far into the future.