The Iron Is Hot On Education Reform, And Jindal Is Striking

Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to “strike while the iron is hot” in order to get his education reform package through the Legislature as quickly as possible. The word is that committees in both the House and Senate could start hearings on education bills in the first week of the session beginning Monday.

The Jindal reform effort is contained primarily in four major pieces of legislation. All of them were filed on Friday, the last day for filing bills before the session. However, once the session starts lawmakers will each have an opportunity to file five additional bills until April 2.

Specific areas being targeted are teacher tenure, charter schools, vouchers and early childhood education. Each will have its built-in opposition.

Tenure is the job protection system for public school teachers and others in the education establishment. Teacher unions don’t want anyone messing with tenure.

The governor wants teachers to work five years instead of three before getting tenure. And they would have to be rated “highly effective” to get the job protection then. Those who already have tenure would have to be rated “effective” to keep tenure.

Teachers are also unhappy with a teacher evaluation program that is already on the books and believe vouchers are unconstitutional.

The education establishment is expected to oppose efforts to make it easier to create more charter schools, which are independent public schools free from some of the rules that are required of other public schools.

Charter schools have to be approved under the current system by local boards. And if they reject applications, BESE has the authority to approve charters. Jindal would add universities and some non-profit groups to that approval system. He even wants parents to be able to vote to convert public schools rated “F” to charter schools.

Superintendents and principals would have a greater role in hiring and firing teachers if Jindal has his way. The idea is to hold specific individuals accountable for a school system’s successes and failures. Local school boards will oppose those parts of the reform effort that take away much of their political power.

Vouchers are another sticking point for local school boards that stand to lose state and local education dollars. The governor prefers to call them scholarships, but they do the same thing, whatever their name. They make it possible for children in low-income families to be able to use public education dollars to attend private or parochial schools. Money follows the students. Families making about $55,000 a year or less for a family of four would qualify for assistance.

State and local governments spend about $8,500 per year to educate individual students, and what isn’t needed for tuition at private or parochial schools would be returned to the state and local school boards.

Jindal wants students in schools rated “C,” “D” or “F” to be able to qualify for school aid. Estimates place the number of eligible students at 380,000, and opponents say the private and parochial schools can’t handle even a small fraction of that total. State Superintendent of Schools John White and others agree it can’t be done, but supporters of the voucher system believe only 2,000 students would take advantage of the program in its first year.

This is a long-term policy, they said, and agree the numbers won’t be high. However, they said the opportunity for financial support needs to be available for all families that qualify.

Early childhood education is aimed at getting 3- and 4-year-olds better prepared for kindergarten. There are about 41,000 4-year-olds currently attending pre-kindergarten classes, but the existing system isn’t well organized. Jindal wants the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to take responsibility for managing all childhood education services.

What we are seeing here is a major overhaul of the way education services are delivered in Louisiana. Opponents will be vocal and the debate will be intense, but Jindal, a Republican, has things pretty well lined up to get what he wants.

The House has 58 fellow Republicans, five over the 53 majority. The Senate has 24 Republicans, four over its majority. The governor supported and contributed campaign funds to most of those GOP legislators. House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, and Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, have both said they fully support education reform.

Democrats, who side with teacher unions, will lead the opposition forces. The Legislative Black Caucus also wants to amend portions of the education reform program. However, public opinion favors most of the governor’s proposals.

Jindal and supporters of his reform effort agree there are good school systems in Louisiana, but emphasize the state as a whole doesn’t measure up to national standards. They realize quick action by a sympathetic Legislature is the best way to start turning things around. A spokesman for the governor said it best.

“…Our kids only grow up once,” he said, “and they shouldn’t be told just to wait for a great education.”

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].

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