Back in 1995, Mike Foster seemed an unlikely candidate making a long-shot bid to lead the state of Louisiana. To most people, he was a big unknown. But he surprised all the “experts” and emerged from a field that included former-governor Buddy Roemer, and future U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, to become a two-term governor who left a legacy that endures.
Governor Mike Foster was about as down-home as they come. Though he was a wealthy businessman, he didn’t come across that way. His television ads showed him hunting, welding, and riding a tractor. It wasn’t the image of a policy wonk – and he certainly wasn’t one – but particularly in the area of education, he and his administration made a lasting impact.
It happened at every level. Under his leadership, and shepherded by the late Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard, the state created LA-4, a statewide pre-k program that grew from humble origins to provide near-universal access to high-quality early education for economically-disadvantaged four-year-olds.
His appointees on BESE, Leslie Jacobs and Paul Pastorek, crafted one of the first K-12 school accountability systems in the country. It was on the cutting age in the late 1990s when it started, and it remains one of the top accountability systems in the country.
Under Governor Foster the state passed its first charter school law. It was a baby step at the time, but it created a movement that has made Louisiana one of the top states in the country for charter schools and New Orleans a national leader that other cities still look to replicate.
The Foster administration also brought sweeping change to higher education in two profound ways. One was the creation of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. When that legislation passed in 1999, Louisiana had only a handful of two-year colleges and dozens of technical schools that were little more than fiefdoms for influential legislators.
Today, LCTCS serves more than 160,000 students each year and graduates more than 32,000 from 12 colleges in every region of the state. This system has truly transformed postsecondary education in Louisiana and impacted millions of citizens.
Another major accomplishment in higher education was the creation of TOPS. While Louisiana had other college scholarships programs at the time, TOPS consolidated all of them and took things a step further by providing free tuition to any student, regardless of income, who met certain academic requirements. While that was a great deal for students and families in reducing the cost of a college education, perhaps its biggest impact was on kids in high school.
That’s because to earn a TOPS scholarship, students had to complete a high school curriculum that included more rigorous course work than most were taking. The result has been more students performing at higher levels on the ACT and entering college better prepared to learn. Today, more than 50,000 students each year earn a TOPS award and that number continues to grow.
Governor Foster was also one to support education with additional funding. Not only did these new programs require added investment, but the governor also pushed for teacher pay raises and increased support for higher education.
Looking back, there are lessons our current leaders could learn. One is that a focus on education makes a difference. Twenty-five years after Governor Foster’s election, education at every level in Louisiana has been transformed. Many more students are performing at higher levels, graduating, going to college, and earning a credential. Our kids are getting a better start, schools are more accountable for results, and our adults have greater opportunities to improve their workforce and career skills.
Today, we need to build on the work of the Foster administration by continuing to prioritize early education, supporting our teachers, and investing in postsecondary education and workforce training. We are going through a difficult period now because of COVID-19, but excepting that bump in the road, Louisiana was no richer back then than we are today.
The difference was that our leaders made an intentional decision to set priorities and invest in our people and the things that would improve their opportunities for the future. We can still do that today.
Interestingly, Mike Foster didn’t really run as an “education governor.” He was a business guy who was going to run the state as a business and bring some common sense to politics in Louisiana. But history has a funny way of changing the trajectory.
Surrounded with the right people at the right time, Governor Foster and those he empowered led a quiet revolution that permanently changed the landscape of education at all levels in Louisiana. It’s a legacy he may not have originally intended to leave, but one that has made a profound difference in our state.