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All hell breaks loose in Louisiana over new Ten Commandments law

‘Foolish’ legislation makes teaching more complicated at a time of declining literacy, says educator

Workers repaint a Ten Commandments billboard off Interstate 71, which runs through the US midwest and southeastern regions, in 2023. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Life has just become a lot more complicated for Louisiana school students, who now not only have to contend with the usual school rules around phones, running in the corridor, attendance and uniforms, but have to pay heed to the Ten Commandments (King James Bible version) as well.

When state governor Jeff Landry signed the legislation on Wednesday stipulating that every public classroom in Louisiana must display the Ten Commandments, it was no great surprise that all hell broke loose. As of now, it’s the only state in the US making this demand of its schools. The law states that the commandments must be framed on a poster or a framed document (at least 11x4 inches) and written in large, “easily readable font”.

“Well, what’s important about this bill and what’s important to remember about this country is that whether we like it or not, Moses is in the supreme court of the United States,” Lauren Ventrella, one of the co-authors of the bill said when she appeared on news channels to defend the legislation.

Even allowing for the longevity of supreme court judges, news that Moses is on the bench would have alarmed many. What she meant, she clarified, was that the commandments were enshrined in the supreme court and that Moses faces the rostrum in the House of Representatives chamber, casting a judicious eye on the succession of presidents who stand there to give the state of the union address and who may, in their day have broken one, several or indeed all of the Ten Commandments.


The pushback was vocal and instantaneous. The legislation revived the ongoing conversation about the separation of church and state in the US. One – brave –Louisianan educator went public and spoke with an air of sadness about how teaching was already sufficiently complex and demanding, and they could do without this complication.

Jeff Landry signs bills related to his education plan on Wednesday. Photograph: Brad Bowie/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP

“It’s just foolish legislation. I mean, what’s going to happen? Are third graders gonna walk into the classroom and see ‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’ on the wall and say, well you know I was really planning on committing adultery today but now I’m not going to do it. It’s just nonsense,” they said.

The American Civil Liberties Union took to social media to announce it would sue the state of Louisiana over the “blatantly unconstitional” new law, and take the matter to the US supreme court. Landry, the governor, told a Republican fundraiser in Nashville: “I can’t wait to get sued.”

Ventrella and the other authors of the bill are baffled at the consternation. “Look, this nation has gotten out of hand with crime, with the bad negative things going on. Why is it so preposterous that we would want our students to have the option to have some good principles instilled in them?”, she asked.

That age-old argument, forwarded by everyone from Grandpa Simpson to Mr Lebowski, that the country is going to hell will be a persuasive one to many.

The controversy is tied to a long-term effort by Louisiana to enact reforms that Cade Brumley, a state educator, argued in a New Orleans Times Picayune opinion piece have marked a stunning reversal of fortune for Louisiana education. “You’ll no longer find our state last in national education rankings,” he told readers, adding that Harvard and Stanford universities had praised Louisiana students’ post-Covid recovery, with reading scores surpassing previous levels and maths outpacing the national average.

The significance of this is underlined by a recent essay in the Atlantic magazine that argues that the decline in reading comprehension in American schools has become alarming, with the reading standard in New York City particularly troubling.

‘Half of [New York’s] third to eighth graders – and 60 per cent of those who are Black and Latino – cannot read at grade level,” the piece reported.

“Although Covid drove those numbers down, a big factor has been the much-lambasted pedagogical method known as balanced literacy, which grew out of Columbia University’s Teachers College. Embraced by the city and then much of the nation back in 2003, balanced literacy attempted to teach kids to read not through phonics, but by exposing them to books of their choice in order to foster a love of reading. The appalling literacy numbers speak volumes about the efficacy of this approach,” it said.

Louisiana’s hard-won returns are primarily down to its teaching staff who, if they are to obey state law – and perhaps Moses himself, are right now fashioning some sort of clearly legible poster. School will soon be out for the summer, but the issue will come back with a vengeance.

There may be an easy solution to all of this: Louisiana state legislators could simply require that all schools make a poster of a wise observation from the Great American School Truant himself, one that contains all the moral instruction of the commandments: “Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doin’ wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better.”

But whatever about the commandments, not so many schools teach Huckleberry Finn any more.