Jindal’s School Reform Plan Is A Nightmare For The Educational Establishment

What do we keep saying around here? Elections have consequences.

The teachers’ unions and the petty tyrants at school boards around Louisiana are about to find that out in technicolor this year as their existence is about to be thoroughly redefined if the state legislature passes major pieces of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform package.

Jindal has the votes on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which voted 9-1 with one abstention last week to confirm the governor’s choice of John White to implement his package of increased school choice, increased school autonomy and increased accountability and merit pay for the state’s teachers. Jindal also has the big stick of a re-election with 66 percent of the vote – against a public-school teacher as his leading opponent, no less.

And Jindal has a carefully picked legislative leadership which he essentially sold his soul to get for the purpose of passing this legislative package. The Governor cast his lot with Sen. John Alario as the president of the state senate, and Alario’s reputation includes among other things a penchant for getting almost anything passed. Whether Jindal had the ability to stop Alario or not, the fact that he moved ahead with today’s speech at a conference Alario attended is an indication he’ll have the support of one of Louisiana’s all-time most ruthless legislators at the head of a body with a Republican majority predisposed to agreement with the agenda announced today.

And while Alario, for all of his myriad faults, promises the ability to deliver on Jindal’s package in the Senate in the House Jindal can count on a stiff GOP and conservative majority to carry the legislation.

A quick survey of the committee assignments indicates that this cake was baked a while ago.

Take the Senate, where Conrad Appel – one of the strongest advocates for the reforms Jindal is proposing – is the chairman of the Education Committee. That committee’s vice-chair is Eric LaFleur, perhaps the most prominent remaining Democrat in the state legislature, and it can be expected LaFleur will rail against the reforms so as to get headlines. But he’ll largely rail alone on that committee, because the rest of its membership consists largely of die-hards – Republicans Mike Walsworth, Bodi White, Jack Donohue and Dan Claitor and Democrat Elbert Guillory, whose voting record is one of the most conservative in his party and who survived a red-hot challenge from the left in the fall.

That looks an awful lot like a 6-1 vote in favor of Jindal’s package in Senate Education. In the House it appears that the governor has a minimum of 11 votes among the 18 members of the Education Committee.

That committee’s chairman is Rep. Steve Carter, who is like Appel one of the most outspoken politicians in the state on education reform. And Carter is only one of 11 Republicans on the committee, along with Chris Broadwater, Henry Burns, Thomas Carmody, Seimone Champagne, Cameron Henry, Paul Hollis, Nancy Landry, John Schroeder, Rob Shadoin and Jeff Thompson. Only Landry is seen as shaky in her support of this package. The committee also has independent Dee Richard, who’s another supporter. That makes for 12 of 18 votes if Landry is on board.

And there might even be more support for the package in that committee. Its vice chair is a freshman Democrat, Patrick Jefferson of Homer. One wonders why a freshman gets that assignment over more experienced Democrats on the committee like Jon Bel Edwards or Pat Smith (the other three Dems are Wesley Bishop, Ed Price and Alfred Williams), and it would make sense that perhaps Jefferson was happy to play ball with at least some of the package. Even if he isn’t, he’s not in a position to kill any of this in committee.

Until actual legislation is written, it’s hard to tell whether any of the package will require a constitutional amendment (which would require 2/3rds majorities in both houses of the legislature to send to the electorate) or whether it would only require simple majorities. Based on the makeup of the legislature at present Jindal looks like he’ll have enough votes for the majority of what he wants if not all of it.

Certainly he’ll have it in the House. In the Senate he could run into trouble if a couple of Republicans get cold feet – but of course that’s where Alario comes in.

So the guess here is that while Jindal didn’t get the perfect legislature in last fall’s elections he has enough to ram through the reforms he announced today.

And if he gets them the educational establishment in this state is finished. Kaput. Its power base will be broken forever.

Teachers’ unions will absolutely hate this stuff.

Consider that the single most important achievement of the teachers’ unions is automatic tenure after three years on the job, and Jindal is proposing to eliminate it in favor of a system in which teachers rated as ineffective go back to probationary status their first year and get fired if they’re rated as ineffective three years in a row.

Consider that the unions brag about having built a seniority-based system that governs not only compensation and hiring/firing decisions, and Jindal wants to wipe it out by banning seniority from personnel decisions  and build into the compensation program a full merit pay scenario which ultimately will merge the teaching profession into the same marketplace that favors other upwardly-mobile professions like lawyers, engineers, executives and nurses – where talent is in demand and richly rewarded, and ineffectiveness results in a poor career prognosis.

And consider that the unions have demanded a rather strict process for the hiring of teachers – education major in college, hired right out of school and promoted via seniority – and Jindal wants to open the profession up to competition from people of all kinds of backgrounds who might bring different perspectives on leadership, management and communication to the table outside of the establishment’s prescribed doctrine.

In such a system, there would be no need for unions. Louisiana’s schools are only 11 percent unionized as it is, but the unions still have a disproportionate influence in education policy. That’s likely to disappear altogether if these reforms go through.

And local school board entry-level politicians will hate it as well.

School boards have been fighting bitterly to keep charters from operating within their jurisdiction, which has led many of the charter operators to seek them from BESE instead after the local school board denies them a charter. This is a completely counterproductive exercise, since BESE is happy to experiment with charters and the ultimate effect will be to dilute the influence of many of the state’s local school boards as the good charter schools grow in enrollment at the expense of the district-run schools. Jindal will accelerate that process by allowing charter operators who want to open schools in districts currently rated D or F to apply directly to the state rather than the school board first. Jindal is also calling for an expanded opportunity for organizations to become charter operators, and he’s calling for parents of kids in failing schools to have the ability after three years of poor performance to vote that school into the Recovery School District and out of the local district.

He’s also going after politically-connected school superintendents who stick around forever thanks to alliances with school boards by calling for a mandatory state review of their contracts – which means failing school districts might just have their superintendent fired out from under them. Most of all, though, Jindal is calling for BESE to change the school funding formula so that education money follows the child regardless of where that child goes to school. The local school board potentates and the teachers’ unions will call this an all-out war on public education, which of course they define solely under the current model. But Jindal’s response is that so long as the state is paying somebody to educate kids, we’ll still have public education whether it involves a local school board, the Catholic Church or the internet.

And Jindal’s package seeks to broaden the entire definition of what constitutes education. From his speech…

“First, our plan will expand the existing Scholarship Program statewide for low-income students at C, D and F schools.

“Second, we are going to expand course choices for students by allowing a variety of providers, including school districts, virtual schools, colleges and universities, and businesses with training programs, to offer students additional options.

“Third, we’re going to plan our Career and Technical Education regionally to better meet the needs of businesses and address individual student interests, while also ensuring that students have access to full Industry Based Certification programs.

“Fourth, we’re going to encourage students who want to pursue a career in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math by making it easier to take high level coursework, recognizing when they are successful with that coursework, and helping districts make those courses available.

“Fifth, we are going to make it easier for high quality charter operators to expand by fast tracking operators with proven track records, streamlining the application process, and giving charter schools the same rights to facilities.

“Sixth, our plan will allow charter operators who want to open schools in districts with grades of D and F the opportunity to apply directly to the state.

“Seventh, we’re going to create a rebate for donations made to nonprofit organizations that offer scholarships to low-income students to attend private school.

“Eighth, we’re going to give a scholarship to students who graduate early from high school equal to one-half of the dollars we would have spent had they prolonged their time in high school. Students will be able to use these dollars as a scholarship—above and beyond any other scholarships—at the postsecondary school of their choice.

If all of this passes, it will remove any semblance of an educational establishment. He’s expanding the state’s voucher program out of New Orleans and into every school district scoring less than an A or B. Here in Baton Rouge, the effect of that will likely to be a massive boon to private schools inside the city; parents accustomed to tuition rates as high as $12,000-15,000 per year will likely see their costs cut in half or even less, with even more options likely to spring up as private school operators recognize the potential viability of new institutions in a soon-to-be growing market. And the rebate idea promises to help capitalize those scholarship programs which amount to vouchers for low-income parents – in a manner designed to avoid the inevitable court challenges the establishment is going to mount.

But with the expansion of opportunities to provide virtual education, Jindal raises home schooling into a much more viable option. And by giving college scholarships to kids who graduate high school early, he’s redefining the antiquated concept of 12-years, nine-months-a-year-and-that’s-your-education. Much of what the governor envisions breaks that concept down into a much more freewheeling universe of possibilities that offers much in the way of choice and, the critics will contend, little in the way of governance.

And that’s simply not a model the unions and bureaucrats can handle. The sound they’re hearing is the floor cracking and falling away from under their feet.

But the sound’s been coming. It started decades ago when Louisiana began its long tenure at the bottom of the national rankings on educational outcomes, it grew louder when Louisiana committed resources above the Southern average to education without any appreciable gains and it became a roar last fall when Jindal rolled to re-election and landed nine of 11 votes on BESE along with a friendly, GOP-dominated legislature.

And now it’s deafening. So loud, in fact, that it’s in question whether the establishment will have enough voice to be heard amid the din.

Because, as we say over and over again, elections have consequences.

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