Jindal’s Education Package: The State Of Things

Last night two bills Gov. Bobby Jindal is pushing to transform public education in Louisiana passed through the House Education Committee, in a marathon session which lasted for some 16 hours. The majority of that time was spent on HB 976, the bill which established a statewide voucher program to benefit students in schools rated C, D or F by the state Department of Education and created a more wide-open opportunity to found charter schools, and that bill passed 12-6 after some 11 hours of testimony and attempts at amendments. Later, HB 974, a bill to reform the state’s teacher tenure law, also cleared the committee – this time on a 13-5 vote.

Yesterday saw several hundred public school teachers bused to the Capitol by two teachers’ unions – the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators – from East Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parishes. By most accounts the attendees added little to the debate, though the fact the school systems employing those teachers had declared a day off did serve to irritate many.

Both bills are the subject of a hearing currently being conducted at the Senate Education Committee, with many of the same witnesses repeating their pitches for and against. Watch it live here.

The process is interesting, though it passed the point of painful yesterday around sundown. But at this point it’s becoming clear that this package is going to pass.

The best evidence for this to be the case can be found in the House committee vote yesterday.

The vice-chairman of House Education, freshman Democrat Patrick Jefferson of Homer, was a “yes” vote on both HB 976 and HB 974. Jefferson’s demeanor in that committee was such that he didn’t appear enthusiastic about either bill, and he voted against the majority on many of the procedural motions throughout the day. But when it was time for the rubber to meet the road Jefferson was with the governor.

Contrast that with something which happened on Tuesday in another committee. Democrat Harold Ritchie, a frequent loud opponent of the governor who made a name for himself last year with attempts to jack up the state’s cigarette tax rates, voted against HB 969 in the House Ways and Means Committee. The bill, authored by Rep. Kirk Talbot (R-River Ridge), would create a tax rebate for businesses and individuals who fund scholarships for students to attend private schools; it’s another bill within the suite of legislation comprising the education reform package. HB 969 passed through Ways and Means on an easy 15-4 vote, but Ritchie was one of the four. And shortly after his opposition, House Speaker Chuck Kleckley delivered to Ritchie some rather rough news – namely that his vice-chairmanship of another committee, House Insurance, was no longer.

In other words, they’re breaking arms and legs up there with reckless abandon. And no exceptions or quarter is being given to Democrats. Elections have consequences, and a governor who garnered two-thirds of the vote in last fall’s election is in no mood not to get his way from a legislature which delivered a friendly majority in both houses. The word is out that education reform is going to pass without significant alteration, and anybody who stands in the way is going to get bumps and bruises – or worse – as a political consequence.

That puts the state’s Democrat Party in a very tough position. They’ve crafted a strategy which to this point isn’t working; namely, to have Democrat leaders like John Bel Edwards and Pat Smith in the House attempt amendments and make objections – the chief one Edwards harped on yesterday was that the idea in HB 976 to use Minimum Foundation Program dollars to fund the voucher program is an unconstitutional diversion of locally-generated funds – while other Democrat leaders like Mary Landrieu would criticize the package from the outside.

Yesterday Landrieu put out a press release suggesting that Jindal was moving too fast on the reform package, and that it’s wrong to ram this thing through before the state’s citizens have a chance to understand it.

“The Governor is advancing one of the most far-reaching education reform packages of the last two decades.  Many individuals and respected organizations favor the thrust of what these proposals seek to accomplish. However, ample public debate is wise and necessary. Oftentimes, policy measures that are muscled through without reflection and discussion are dismantled later.

“If the goal here is true, systemic and long-lasting reform, not only does the Legislature need to buy in, but so do citizens in every parish and every region of our state. A good reform package will survive a thorough review, because it will survive on its merits.”

Then Landrieu gave an interview to the Times-Picayune in which her rhetoric got a whole lot sharper…

 “If this is such a great reform package, it should be able to stand the test of review. This is a democracy. This isn’t a dictatorship,” Landrieu said in an interview…

“The governor’s unwise, ill-advised push to ram this package through before the citizens of our state have a chance to really understand, it is wrong. There’s no other way to say it, and this effort needs to slow down,” the senator said…

“His staff is arrogant, my way or the highway, you’re with us or against us, and if you’re for any amendments, you’re put into the column of ‘status quo.’ That is the height of arrogance,” Landrieu said.

Putting aside the irony of an accusation of arrogance from the senator whose telephone response following her Louisiana Purchase/Obamacare vote was so high-handed and distant that it prompted James O’Keefe to pull a stunt wherein he and a few confederates pretended to be telephone repairmen checking to see if the phones were working – and that resulted in Landrieu calling in the federal marshals and the FBI, you can see a strategy at work. Landrieu had jumped on board much of Jindal’s package from the start, particularly the expansion of charter schools, and that enabled her to pose as a supporter of the program.

But three days into the legislative session she offers up the hostility the Picayune reported, and that makes the “support” she offered a relatively obvious ploy. Landrieu is positioning herself to say that as a former supporter of the package she’s made an objective judgement that it’s no good and that Jindal’s going about reform all wrong.

This isn’t laughable only if you actually believed that Landrieu was ever on board with these reforms, rather than just saying she was so as not to irritate the voters she’ll be asking to send her back to Washington for a fourth term in 2014. Because the public is generally very supportive of the reform package, as a new survey of the state’s voters indicates.

But laughable or not, it’s what the Dems have. If Landrieu can carp away from the outside and generate bad press for the package, and the foot soldiers like Smith and Edwards in the House and, it appears, possibly Eric Lafleur (D-Ville Platte) in the Senate – though Lafleur is the vice-chairman of the Senate Education Committee hearing the senate version of the two bills (SB 603 is the teacher tenure bill and SB 597 is the charter/voucher bill) today, and his vote on them will be an interesting test case as to the discipline the Senate will enforce – can somehow throw up enough procedural road blocks to drag the process out, then perhaps the hordes of teachers milling around the Capitol can make the legislators go wobbly and allow the legislation to be watered down if not killed.

Like we said above, it’s not working. Last night after 11-plus hours of hearings on HB 976, Edwards and Smith attempted to adjourn the House Education Committee until Saturday so that the teachers could really descend on the Capitol en masse, but were rebuffed.

Don’t bet on it working any better in the future. The reform crowd has worked too hard and the governor is too invested in this program to let it die on the vine. The floor votes on these bills might be chaotic, but the votes are there – and they’ll come shortly.

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