Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform train left the station Monday with a full head of steam. The trip started minutes after the governor took the oath of office for his second term.
Jindal for months had been stoking the boilers with fuel designed to make the reform trip as smooth as possible. And he made sure the engineer, fireman and other members of the crew were ready to roll as well when he hand-picked legislative and education leaders sympathetic to his cause.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, will be handling some of those major duties and helping steer the governor’s reform train through the Legislature. You could tell from their comments after taking their leadership oaths prior to the governor’s swearing in that they were fully in step with Jindal.
Kleckley said, “Our most precious resource is facing a more serious challenge from within, and that resource is our children. There is much that remains to be done.”
Jindal took an unprecedented interest in the normally unfamiliar races for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in order to help elect members who are solidly on his team. He gave them prominence they have never known when he let them take their oaths of office on his inauguration platform shortly before he took his own.
BESE sets policy for the state’s nearly 670,000 public school students. It funds public education with $3.4 billion in state financial aid appropriated by the Legislature.
Other groundwork was also laid before Monday’s official ceremonies. Jindal has been meeting with legislators, parents, teacher union representatives and school superintendents to talk about his education reform plans, even though the details are still sketchy.
Jindal has talked in general terms about improving teacher quality, giving parents more school choices and letting local educators have a bigger role in how education dollars are spent. However, some who attended those meetings said tenure that gives teachers job protection, school vouchers that give students tuition money for private schools, increasing use of charter schools and online schools are some of the other issues that surfaced.
Many educators, teacher unions and local school boards aren’t happy about Jindal’s effort to shake up the current system. But public sentiment and success at the polls have given the governor a green light to keep his reform train rolling down the tracks at breakneck speed.
Why the big push? Jindal answered that question without any qualms during his inaugural address.
“Every child does not receive an equal opportunity to a quality education today,” Jindal said Monday. “That is a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion.”
The governor a number of times has reminded his listeners that 44 percent of the state’s 1,300 public schools received a “D” or an “F” last year when judged on school performance.
“And here is the good news,” Jindal said Monday. “We can fix this. All we need is the will power to get it done, and the courage to stop doing things that have proven not to work… All we need to do is muster the courage to change our ways and to abandon old tired methods that have failed generations of our children.”
The reform train’s first stop was at the Wednesday meeting of BESE where members gave Jindal his first major education victory. The board named John White, 36, the next state superintendent of education. White is superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans. He is a former New York City education official and leader in the Teach for America movement.
Jindal had been unable up to now to garner the 8 of 11 BESE votes needed to select a superintendent. The election of reformers last fall gave him the margin he needed with votes to spare.
The train’s next stop takes place March 12 at the state Capitol when the Legislature convenes for its regular 2012 session. That is where the governor’s education reform agenda could face its toughest test. However, Jindal even laid some groundwork there to ensure his program has a better-thaneven chance of being enacted.
Last October, Jindal captured 65.8 percent of the vote and carried all of the state’s 64 parishes. In addition, 87 statewide, legislative and BESE candidates endorsed by the governor won in the primary. After the November general election, 96 of 110 candidates endorsed by the governor were victorious. Nearly half of the legislators he endorsed were unopposed, but Jindal can still remind them he was in their camp.
Jindal may not get everything he wants during the session, but it won’t be because he didn’t try to move heaven and earth to make it happen. We may be witnessing the beginning of the most far-reaching public education changes Louisiana has seen in our lifetimes.
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].