Fifty Republicans and 12 Democrats came through for Gov. Bobby Jindal last week when he needed their votes to get two of his education reform measures out of the House and on to the Senate. Two independents added to the governor’s numbers on a bill that changes the state’s teacher tenure system.
A measure that sets up a school choice system for parents of students who are attending failing public schools passed 62-43. The tenure bill was approved 64-40.
Routine legislation requires 53 votes in the House, so neither measure would have made it without support from Democrats or the independent legislators. Seven of the 12 Democrats voting for both bills are from the New Orleans area, the place where failing public schools have been taken over by the Recovery School District. They know how critical it is to change an education system that isn’t producing positive results.
Jindal lost eight of the House’s 58 Republicans on the school choice bill and seven on the teacher tenure measure. Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, was the only Republican in this corner of the state to vote against both bills. Rep. Johnny Guinn, R-Jennings, voted against the tenure legislation.
Geymann is about as conservative as they come, but he said both bills have problems. He called his vote “one of the most difficult decisions in my time in office.” He said he supports the broad concept of school choice through vouchers, scholarships and tax credits and the effort to improve tenure and teacher incentives.
“However, this legislation runs deeper than that,” he said.
The school choice bill lacks the performance and accountability standards required to ensure that nonpublic schools will give students a better education than they are getting in public schools, he said. Like other opponents, Geymann said he is concerned about local tax funds being used to pay tuition at private and parochial schools, some of which may be in other school districts. He said he also worries about the voucher system meeting the needs of special education and vocational students.
Geymann said the tenure bill gives more authority to school superintendents, and that removes the checks and balances and the voice of the people through their elected school boards.
“Big government and centralization of school policy has a negative, long-term impact on schools at the local level,” he said.
Rep. Mike Danahay of Sulphur isn’t your typical Democrat. He’s more in line with what we used to call Ronald Reagan Democrats, those who are on the conservative side of issues. Danahay supported amendments to the education reform bills, but he voted against both measures on final passage.
Danahay’s concerns echoed those of many on the other side of this reform effort, which is sorely needed to improve public education in Louisiana. Jindal, Carter, state education Superintendent John White and many others make that case well when they say 44 percent of the state’s schools are rated “D” or “F” and that $1 billion is spent every year on failing schools. Polls also show the public is behind the reform effort.
So what’s the problem and why so much opposition? Danahay said it well after the 12th hour of a 16-hour day Thursday that ended with passage of the first of the reform bills:
“This bill represent a monumental shift in public education that authorizes the use of local taxpayers dollars being shifted from the public to the private sector, as well as the question of accountability of those public funds,” Danahay said. “Those are issues in this legislation that deserve a lengthy and deliberative debate to be conducted over a period of time.”
Unfortunately, consideration of the two bills was rushed too quickly. The state’s major newspapers and others pleaded for a slower deliberative process, but the governor’s forces tipped their hand when they insisted on debating two bills over two 16-hour days. No one is served well when their thought processes are strained over that long a period.
The Jindal administration and its legislative supporters obviously believed dragging out consideration of the bills would stymie the effort to make significant changes in an education system that hasn’t measured up for many years. And that can happen. However, it’s clear now that a majority in the Legislature is behind the reform effort, so it can’t hurt to take a short breather and fine-tune the reform package.
The process isn’t finished, so why not make a serious attempt to pick up even more supporters to achieve a goal that everyone wants — a better education for the children of Louisiana? The bigger the margin of victory, the better the chances that education reform will produce genuine and lasting results.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].