Officials and economists say the quality of K-12 education has a strong impact on the local economy.
Minden Economic Development Director James Graham says education plays a key role in selling the City of Minden as a package to prospective businesses coming to the area.
“Having a quality K-12 program is extremely important because children that are taught well and have good experiences in school are able to understand what it means to work and understand the value of work when they graduate,” he said. “They are also prepared for the next stage of their development, whether it’s going off to work or college.”
He says when presenting Minden as an economic package, students and the workforce are competing on a global level, and that means perception is everything.
“It’s also good to have a good education system, and if the system is not perceived to be a good system, then the employer is not going to really want the student product,” he said. “When your education system has a negative perception, it’s the automatic break in economic development.”
Instead of focusing on the scores, Graham is focusing on the programs each school offers its students from the elementary to the high school level.
“I don’t focus totally on the score,” he said. “What I focus on is the quality of the education, programs the schools have, the outcomes.”
Economist Dr. Jim Richardson, a professor at LSU Baton Rouge, says K-12 education is a good indicator of the kind of students headed to college or into the workforce. Education is certainly an important aspect of driving an area’s economy, he says, but it isn’t a quick fix.
“You don’t expect to see an incredible impact in six months,” he said. “It’s a much longer term issue that we’re dealing with. It’s not just one class, it’s a whole generation of students that we’re talking about. Whatever the test scores may mean, the way we measure them, they do indicate that there is a higher quality student coming out of our system.”
Richardson says Louisiana has one of the highest dropout rates in the nation, and that certainly impacts the attraction of bringing new business into the state.
District-wide, 79 percent of Webster Parish’s high school students graduated. In areas such as Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport and Bossier City, the graduation rate varies. In neighboring Bossier Parish, the graduation rate was 80 percent. In Caddo Parish, 68 percent of its high school students graduated, while in Ouachita Parish, 81 percent received their diplomas. In Lafayette Parish, 69 percent of high school students graduated, while in East Baton Rouge Parish, only 66 percent graduated.
Orleans Parish has the highest percentage of graduates at 89 percent.
The statewide high school graduation average, according to DOE reports is 75 percent.
The latest statistics from the LDOE show that in the 2013-14 school year, the dropout rate was at 4.48 percent, with Webster Parish carrying a total of dropout rate of 3.55 percent.
These figures are based on school and district scores provided by DOE.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Dan Rawls explained that while scores remained about the same from the previous year, the scores do not accurately reflect a student’s performance.
Rawls explained the state education system has been in a state of transition for the last three or four years, and the curriculum was changed yet again this year.
Richardson says with the state education system in a constant state of transition, prospective businesses must look past the scores to get a good indicator of how the area achieves its educational goals.
“The businesses do a good job of examining people, and I think there a number of people that look at the curriculum and see what’s going on,” he said. “I appreciate [Graham’s] job in trying to say, ‘Look, don’t look at the scores, we’re bigger than that. We have other dimensions.’”
He says economic impact boils down to the assessment of students, K-12 or college level, whether they can read, write and do simple math.
“That’s the overall education environment,” he said. “That’s when a company might put more meaning into those scores, and they should. Any company that might come into Webster Parish will come in and say, ‘Are these qualities that we can live with and work with?’”
Dianne Clark, interim director of Northwest Louisiana Technical College, says their programs are geared towards the economic demands of the region. Some of the higher demand jobs in the area, she says, include machine tool, instrumentation and nursing.
“Every one of our programs require certain scores on an entrance exam,” she said. “There are some programs that have higher math requirements than others, but what we focus on is more the skills training. We are not about excluding people. The entrance exam is not about keeping students out, it’s about making sure they go enroll in a program, they have the tools they need to be successful.”
Every student, whether they receive a diploma or not, has a chance to enter a program of their choice.
“We work with the high schools so that we can figure out how to prepare the high school students to come in to those career training so that they get training that is being demanded in the area,” she said.