The light at the end of the tunnel approaches, which for advocates of educational reform in Louisiana represents escape from a suffocating structure with the ability to start in earnest improving elementary and secondary education delivery in the state, while for opponents means their political power bases are about to get knocked down by the fast approaching reform train.
At first, one might not consider these the relevant metaphors in light of state District Judge Michael Caldwell’s re-ruling that the operative piece of legislation that established the main aspects of this reform – one which makes it easier to hold educators accountable for their job performance – was unconstitutional. He restated last week a conclusion he drew last spring that the bill, Act 1 of 2012, did not adhere to the state constitutional requirement that all bills have but a single object.
But he had to reissue the ruling because the state’s Supreme Court instructed him to do so, after it had reviewed another case brought by reform opponents, challenging another reform law dealing with instituting vouchers in education using the same rationale. That the Court dismissed that part of the other challenge, explaining that the Legislature has large discretion to placing reasonably related items together in a bill where the presumption is made that such arranging is constitutional unless there is an obvious mishmash “gravely repugnant to the constitution,” demonstrates that Caldwell will end up whiffing twice on this, and on appeal will be reversed again.
And reform opponents know it. After his ruling became public, instead of statements full of confidence and rejoicing in the declaration of violation of the single-object rule leading to the law’s demise, instead they offered up cautious requests to “work with” the majorities in the Legislature and Gov. Bobby Jindal to alter the legislation, declaring it a time to “work together” to come up with something different.
Naturally, these forces never extended such invitations when they were able to command policy-making majorities, doing everything they could to stop any meaningful change. They, who represent a menagerie including ideologues that wish to aggrandize as much power into government as possible, unions trying to retain their power as shapers of personnel policy, administrators who want as few constraints as possible on their power and discretion, politicians who use education bureaucracies as sinks for patronage and preferments, and underperforming teachers who wish to continue employment in their current positions with no additional demands, due to pursuit of these special interests instead of making their primary purpose providing a quality education for children, had worked vigorously for decades to stifle any systemic change.
However, the continued underperformance of the system became too much for the public to stomach and thus politicians responded. Surely the majorities that put children’s needs ahead of those of special interests understand nothing good can be gained by doing anything philosophically different as these interests hope, and that while no complex legislation comes out perfectly initially, only a continuation of tinkering around the margins that has been occurring over the past 18 months need happen.
This will produce the final defeat of the anti-reform elements. They knew they had problems after the 2011 elections sent even more pro-reform legislators, plus a solid majority of reform-oriented Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members, into office, and after defeat at the hands of the state’s plenipotentiary organs, they adopted the rearguard strategy of trying to undo the will of the people in the courts. In meantime, they hoped their obstructionism would cause such a headache to policy-makers that the sitzkrieg could get some to renege on their willingness to progress forward.
Yet that has about run its course, so Jindal and those legislators who care about improving educational delivery need to hold fast as the last obstacles get removed. It’s really a simple concept that they defend: by removing insulation from the consequences of performance, defined in the main as the learning progress made by students, incentives can be applied to improve that performance. Breaking apart the ossified structure and exposing as false the shibboleths that only more money and government control can improves matters – falsified not just by data from other states that perform better, but by other countries that spend much less on poorer children yet still do better – is best accomplished by reform legislation such as this.
Louisiana’s previous reforms along these lines – most notably charter schools – have begun to pay off as indicated in the most recent report,Education Week’s annual Quality Counts, which showed the state near the top in progress being made in quality improvement. With the last of the resistance crumbling and the full implementation of the 2012 reforms coming within the next two years, that increase in quality will accelerate and be reflected as the state’s children climb in performance rankings in future years. Implementation quality will be the issue for decades to come, but at least the leeches trying to hold back policy change finally soon will be dislodged.