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Published: July 13, 2011


The 18th state to join the Union, in 1812, and a founding member of the Confederate States of America, in 1861. Despite a tradition of public schooling that dates back to the 1720s, Louisiana public schools have ranked lowest among all state public school systems for generations. In 1999, however, the state’s dismally low educational standards so lowered labor force skills that the business community combined with reform-minded political leaders to apply what they called “shock therapy” to public school systems. Unable to participate in the nation’s general prosperity, the state raised teacher salaries and imposed certification requirements for new teachers. The state also raised minimum academic performance levels for promotion and graduation at the state’s nearly 1,500 public schools. At the time, only about 20% of Louisiana citizens had ever gone to college, and academic proficiency of the state’s 710,000 schoolchildren ranked among the lowest in the nation in every academic area—a reflection, in part, at least, of the staggering number of children living in poverty— some 207,000, or more than 29% of the state’s 18-and-under population. About half were minority students. By 2000, the state’s efforts to improve public school education had raised student academic achievement from last in the nation to 36th—still far below average, but a notable improvement nonetheless for a state so mired in poverty.
In 1998, the state also approved spending of more than $1 billion to improve existing four-year colleges and create a system of twoyear community colleges to increase the number of skilled workers and attract more business. By the beginning of 2005, the state had supplemented its 16 public four-year colleges with new two-year colleges and lifted the total number of community colleges to 46. The state also had 13 private four-year colleges, including famed Grambling State University and the academically prestigious Tulane University. At the time, however, average graduation rates for the 150,000 students enrolled in four-year colleges were a distressingly low 37% and less than 30% at several state campuses. By the end of 2005, however, the statistics for Louisiana education at all levels were rendered moot by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which closed 10 colleges and universities and hundreds of elementary and secondary schools—some never to reopen. Before the public school closed, however, fourth and eighth grade students had participated in the 2005 tests of the NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS. The results were dreadful, with student proficiency ranking among the five worst states in the nation. With 70,000 college and university students displaced and tens of thousands of elementary and secondary school children missing and/or relocated, any statistics gathered before or since are meaningless, because of the vast population shifts.