Public opinion is on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s side when it comes to reforming this state’s public education system. However, some of the tactics being used by his administration and the legislative leadership to get there are costing him support.
More than 1,000 teachers and other educators spent Wednesday and Thursday at the state Capitol to protest bills being debated, but many complained they were locked out of the building. The confusion could have been avoided if both sides had done a better job of communicating in advance of the protest.
State Police and sergeant-at-arms personnel could have met with protest leaders and set up a system to serve everyone’s needs. Educators could have set up a system of taking turns attending committee meetings since it’s impossible to get all of them in the building at the same time. Protesters should also plan ahead by selecting the best among their numbers to serve as spokespersons to tell their story.
Jindal wants to move quickly since he has the momentum, but the two education committee hearings left little room for dissenting views. Democrats did use proposed amendments as delaying tactics to fight the reform effort, but a few of the proposals had merit.
Opponents were voted down decisively when they tried to amend legislation that is drastically changing the face of public education. Republicans voted for the bills and against the amendments. Most Democrats were against the bills and for the amendments.
Meanwhile, the Jindal forces had no problem adding scores of their own amendments, which says a lot about the original bills being hastily or poorly drafted.
The House Education Committee started its hearing at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, and it didn’t end until after midnight. Most of those who wanted to be heard had that opportunity, but the session should have been continued. The Senate Education Committee met for nine hours Thursday. Most of its votes were 5-1.
Jindal said people were given every opportunity to offer their “ideals, reviews and comments.” However, anyone sitting through those committee hearings would have to question his statement that his administration is “open to any amendment that will improve these bills in an honest and sincere and effective way.”
Longtime political observers will tell you bills need to be thoroughly debated in committee sessions. That is the place where they can be tailored to satisfy almost everyone’s needs. Where education reform is concerned, we are talking about changing the lives of thousands of teachers and students in ways that will impact the rest of their lives. It’s totally impractical to try and do that over a 16-hour period in one day and a 9-hour session the next.
Making changes when bills are debated on the floors of the House and Senate is extremely difficult.
Legislators weren’t happy last week about some of the governor’s methods of trying to keep their colleagues in line. Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, ended up in the middle of one controversy when he demoted a committee vice chairman.
Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, said he was removed because he voted against a Jindal-backed education tax rebate bill, which was approved 15-4. He said the administration was using fear and intimidation to send a message to everyone voting on bills.
Kleckley said, “My discussion on the vice chairmanship will remain a personal decision.” He added that he and Ritchie will continue to have a good relationship and that Ritchie has done a good job for his constituents.
Whatever the real story, Kleckley got caught in the middle. And all the stories I read about the incident pointed out that Jindal had backed Kleckley for the speaker’s job. Even though Kleckley may have been elected on his own, it will be impossible to ever sever that connection with the governor.
A more independent Legislature could avoid the kind of turmoil we witnessed last week, but apparently that isn’t in the cards. Louisiana governors have too much control over the purse strings to make that happen. Jindal is not the first to play such a heavy hand in picking legislative leaders.
The tension we saw last week will rear its ugly head again when the governor’s retirement reform plan surfaces in both houses. And legislators are saying it’s a bigger issue with the folks back home than the education proposals.
Lawmakers will be meeting for another 11 weeks. The significance of what Gov. Jindal is trying to do demands nothing less than serious and lengthy deliberations throughout the process. That didn’t happen last week.
Yes, the governor could lose some of his momentum if things drag on too slowly, but rushing the process is even worse. Besides, Jindal’s public support will be there unless his heavy hand turns them off.
Reform that produces effective change has to be done by rational human beings who have adequate time to seriously weigh the merits of every issue. If children really are the reason we are transforming public education in this state, don’t they deserve that special consideration?
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].