Long enters education debate

By James Ronald Skains
Journal Correspondent

"I'm a supporter of public education and always will be," State Senator Gerald Long told the Piney Woods Journal. "I started my career as a teacher and coach, and both of my children are public school teachers."

"Since we rank near the bottom in the nation in public education, the worst thing that we could do as elected legislators of the people of Louisiana, is to do nothing to fix our problems with public education," Long, a native of Winnfield stated. "Doing nothing is unacceptable to everyone.''

"Teaching is a very difficult job," Long told the Journal. "Most teachers are at school by 7 a.m. which means that they probably get up at 5 a.m."

"Typically, a teacher is at school until 4 p.m., and then most teachers work on lesson plans after they get home at night, and taking calls from parents," Long continued. "It's a tough, demanding job. Most teachers are dedicated but frustrated."

"I'm proposing an amendment that would require parents to attend at least one Parent-Teacher Conference each year," Long pointed out. "This may not seem like much participation by the parents but it is more than we are getting now from many parents."

"One of the major problems our public education system faces each day is absenteeism," Long, entering his second term in the Louisiana Senate stated. "If the parents don't make sure that their children are in school, no matter how good the teachers are, a consistently absent student can't perform up to their ability."

"We also have to face the fact that so many students in Louisiana are living in poverty," Long, an ordained Minister who teaches Bible classes during weeks that the Louisiana Legislature is in session acknowledged. "This one factor, living in poverty, "The changes in the teacher tenure law actually long-term will strengthen our public school teachers," Long, a Northwestern State University graduate explained. "At the present time, all tenure really does is guarantee you an administrative hearing. In today's society, most people when terminated immediately get an attorney.''

"Under the new tenure system, it is a three year process for public school teachers," Long, whose brother, Jimmy served 30-plus years in the Louisiana, most of it on the House Education Committee, noted. "If a teacher is found deficit, then they have the opportunity for re-training, teacher coaching and mentoring to improve their deficiencies."

"The Southern Research Educational Board estimates that 7 to 10% of public school teachers need remedial work," Long said. "Under the Educational Reforms, the teachers will be held to a higher level of accountability, but will have opportunities to work out of those deficiencies. Under the new rules, teachers without certificates can teach for a period of time in charter schools," Long admitted. "However, starting to teach without a certificate is not a new thing. It just means that if you have a degree in something other than education, you can begin teaching until you obtain your educational degrees."

"Many of the teachers in 'Teach For America' are not certified teachers," Long added. "So, under these educational reforms, no teacher found to have deficiencies is going to be thrown under the bus. They will have the opportunity to improve their capabilities through additional teacher training," Long emphasized. "Long-term, this will improve the quality of our public school teachers."

"We have to face the fact that in most any profession, you have a certain number of people in the profession who are great at what they do, others good, some fair and a few who need more training, or to find a different profession," Long, who spent most of his career as a State Farm Insurance agent after leaving the teaching profession, elaborated.

"In reality, it is going to be very difficult for these educational reforms to accomplish its goals," Long acknowledged. "Superintendent John White estimates that there are currently only 2,000 slots available statewide for students in charter or private schools. From what I've heard in testimony in the Senate on these reforms, I believe that only about 1,000 slots are available for students in charter and private schools,'' Long, whose Senate District includes portions of Natchitoches, Sabine, Winn, Red River, and Rapides Parishes, pointed out.

"Secondly," Long, who's portion of Rapides Parish includes Hineston, LeCompete and the Forest Hill areas, noted, "Is the pure math of the educational reforms. First, only students from D and F grade schools can transfer, and the transfer must be approved by the principal of each school involved."

"Then comes the money part," Long emphasized. "All charter and private schools cost more than what the state spends per student to educate our students in public schools."

"The difference in the cost of charter or private schools and the amount of money that a student can carry with them from the public is quite large," Long said. "The difference in the money available and the cost of charter and private schools will have to come from somewhere else and it won't come from the state or local school districts."

"Both Florida and Indiana are voucher program states," Long explained; "However, only 3.1% of the students in Florida participate in the voucher program, and the rate in Indiana is lower at only 2%."

"Parents in Louisiana will ultimately decide if their children will participate in the voucher system if the system is enacted," Long, a distant cousin of both former Governors Huey P. Long and Earl K. Long, continued.

"Both Huey and Earl Long plus my brother Jimmy Long, were champions of Public Education," Senator Gerald Long pointed out to the Journal. "You can see their marks still today on public education in Louisiana."

"Education is always in some stage of evolution based on the social and economic fabric of our state," Long noted. "To do nothing about our problems in public education in Louisiana would be a great wrong for everyone."

The Journal then asked Senator Long to explain the current attempts to reform the existing Louisiana state employee's retirement system.

"First of all, any changes made in the retirement system will have to meet the federal rules and regulations governing retirement programs," Long acknowledged.

"We have a huge unfunded retirement system now in Louisiana," Long pointed out. "Something has to be done about it to protect the system in order to be able to guarantee that monies are there for future retirees. One of the proposals is to raise the retirement age for those that are now in the system and that will come into the system," Long explained. "However, anyone with 30 years of work as a public employee can retire once they reach age 55."

"The $18 billion deficit in our Louisiana Retirement System has built up over many years due to the failure of past legislators to come to grips with the problem," Long elaborated. "At least, we are now confronting the problem head on and searching for the right solutions to protect and enhance the public employee' retirement system in Louisiana."

Senator Long invited us to have lunch with him at the Rural Legislative Caucus. One of several key topics of the day was the Louisiana Food Bank. It was especially interesting to learn that the five regional Louisiana Food banks distribute 50 million pounds of food annually to 695,000 people in Louisiana.

However, the good was that most of the food is purchased from Louisiana farmers, fishermen and food manufacturers.