Gov. Bobby Jindal is pursuing public education reform with a passion and determination we haven’t seen over the last four years. The motivation he has demonstrated and the groundwork he has laid may be the result of the losses he suffered at last spring’s legislative session that he doesn’t want to see repeated.
The governor has already visited a half-dozen schools to get first-hand input and those travels appear to be just the beginning. In between, he has had meetings with legislators, educators, members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and others interested in improving an education system that leaves a lot to be desired.
Jindal delivers the same message at every stop. Consider what he said during a visit this week to Westlake High School.
“I’ve said now repeatedly that education is going to be our top priority going into the new year,” the governor said. “We’re open to a wide array of ideas and suggestions. The one thing that we will not tolerate are those that want to defend the status quo, that simply want more time, more money for the same old results.”
The groundwork for reform began when he successfully backed candidates for BESE that agree change is a no-brainer. He now has the votes on that board to elect John White, his choice for state superintendent of education. White is currently superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans.
The Coalition for Louisiana Public Education was formed by the teacher unions and school boards to protect the status quo during the BESE elections, but it wasn’t successful. It is now calling for a national search for state superintendent, but that is also a lost cause.
Penny Dastugue, president of BESE, said, “We don’t have the funds or the time to do a nationwide search. And we have a lot of heavy work that needs to be done immediately, so I don’t see that happening.”
Legislators also have to be on board, and the governor moved swiftly after the primary and general elections to pick his legislative leaders. He ensured he will get much better cooperation from the Legislature after he selected Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, as the next president of the Senate and Rep. Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, as speaker of the House. Their election on inauguration day Jan. 9 will only be a formality.
Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, the only holdout for the speaker’s job, threw in the towel this week. And he made a serious effort to patch up any differences he had with Jindal.
“I just decided it was time to put my bruised ego aside and do what was best for my constituents and my supporters,” Robideaux said. “Philosophically, I’ve been aligned with the governor the whole time, so it just seemed to make sense to get on board and be part of the team.”
Next up on the legislative front will be Alario and Kleckley working with Jindal to name committee chairmen and members. You can be sure the lawmakers the governor wants on the House and Senate education committees will be the first order of business.
The details of Jindal’s education reform effort won’t be announced until January, but he has outlined what he has in mind. Teacher evaluations top the list. However, the governor also wants to give parents more choices about where their children attend schools and give lowperforming schools more flexibility in how they educate youngsters.
Among the other hot issues expected to crop up are what to do about teacher tenure that keeps incompetent teachers in the classrooms, merit pay for teachers, tax credits, school vouchers, school board term limits and letting principals control their own budgets.
Jindal touched on the merit pay and tenure issues in an address to the Council for a Better Louisiana.
“Teachers are the backbone of education,” the governor said. “Yet, we treat all teachers the same with our one-size-fits-all system. Indeed, we seemingly reward everything but effectiveness and, in the process, we tie the hands of districts to make smart personnel decisions that retain and reward the most effective educators.”
The only serious opposition to all of this so far has come from the teacher unions, although local school boards are also expected to buck some of the proposed education reforms.
BESE has already given the stamp of approval to a teacher evaluation system that was enacted in 2010. Half of a teacher’s annual evaluation will be linked to student achievement that is measured by standardized tests. That train has already left the station.
Opponents of teacher evaluations say they overlook student apathy, uncaring parents, disrespect for authority that causes discipline problems, overcrowded classes, gangs, drugs and absenteeism. Those are valid concerns for principals and assistant principals to keep in mind when they judge teachers annually for the other 50 percent of their evaluation.
Education reform is a complex issue and legislators and BESE will have to keep that in mind as they reshape public education. However, like it or not, reform is coming. Jindal is the engineer of the train, and voters gave him a green light in more ways than one during the fall elections.
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].