Cover Story

Educated Guess

by Nathan Stubbs

The Jindal administration has yet to roll out the details of its education reform plans. So why are teacher unions already so leery? In November, just weeks after his election as governor, Bobby Jindal stood before a largely skeptical crowd at the L’Auberge du Lac hotel and casino in Lake Charles. In his first public address since the election, Jindal was the keynote speaker for the annual convention of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the state’s second largest teachers union. For many members of the LFT, Jindal’s appearance at the convention was significant in itself. During the gubernatorial race, the LFT backed Jindal’s Democratic opponent, Foster Campbell, and admonished Jindal both for not responding to its candidate questionnaire and for being the only major gubernatorial contender not to attend its candidate forum in Baton Rouge.

“Let me be clear,” Jindal said, “the election is over.”

Citing the bitter partisan battles he witnessed in Congress, Jindal preached unity. “We don’t need to bring the partisanship of Washington to Louisiana,” he said. “Many of you voted for me and supported me during this campaign, and I thank you for doing that. Those of you that didn’t, I need to earn your support as well.”

Jindal also sought out common ground with the LFT, endorsing a long-range pay plan for teachers and school workers, and even levying his own criticism on the bureaucracy created by President Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind initiative. “I’m not convinced that a one size fits all solution from Washington is apt to improve education in Louisiana,” Jindal said. He then added, to thunderous applause, “If [No Child Left Behind] comes back while I’m still in Congress, I’m not voting for reauthorization.”

“It was probably one of the best speeches we’ve had at our convention,” says LFT President Steve Monaghan. “The governor was very well received. Everyone came away very encouraged.”

Since that time, however, Monaghan has seen little outreach from the governor’s office. The public education community has also become increasingly wary of some of the initiatives Jindal’s office is supporting. Their primary concerns are over three issues — a movement toward vouchers, or public funds given to assist parents in sending their children to private schools; a merit-based pay scale for teachers; and the push for a greater expansion of charter schools in the state. All three issues have been at the forefront of national debates over education reform for more than a decade and continually draw the ire of teacher unions that fear they will undermine public education.

Proponents argue these measures, when used in the right way, help to drive competition, allow for a healthy option of choices for parents and students, and encourage schools to be more innovative and efficient.

Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek says that charter schools and voucher-related initiatives can be helpful tools in situations where traditional public schools have floundered.

“In limited circumstances,” he says, “I think giving children a choice beyond public schools has to be considered. You know there are some circumstances where kids, who particularly are poor, go to schools that have failed for so long that it’s not fair to the child to continue to offer them a failed alternative.” Pastorek also notes that a flexible pay plan for teachers can be an effective means of getting teachers in hard-to-staff positions.

For the state’s two primary teachers unions — the LFT and the Louisiana Association of Educators — these types of initiatives represent dangerous precedents.

Monaghan contends that the proposals, however limited in scope, establish questionable policies.

“I think this establishes the base line for the legislation,” Monaghan says. “And then we are going to be looking at expansion.”

LFT Communications Director Les Landon notes that these proposals all fall in line with the national Republican Party’s platform, which advocates for more school choice and represent a dramatic shift in policy. “What we’re seeing is a very right wing ideological agenda,” Landon says.

Earlier this month, as a tax deduction measure for private school tuition began making its way through the state Legislature, Landon observed that while Jindal campaigned heavily on ethics reform and economic development, the governor had been less than forthcoming about his plans for public education reform.

“Gov. Jindal came into office very popular,” Landon says, “with what he feels like is a mandate for his agenda. I think an awful lot of people didn’t know or understand what his agenda was and what it would mean. So we are educating our own members and members of our profession about what the Jindal administration so far means to public education, and what we have seen in the last week is a full frontal assault on public education.”

The voucher debate already briefly took center stage this year in the Legislature’s recently concluded special session, where lawmakers passed a tax deduction measure for private and parochial school tuitions. The bill allows parents to deduct half of the tuition from their state income taxes, up to a $5,000 deduction per child. (A similar bill was passed by the state Legislature last year, only to be vetoed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco.) Proponents of the measure effectively argued that private school parents pay taxes to support public schools their children do not attend. At the same time, private schools help to ease the strain on the public school system.

The actual tax benefits of the bill will be relatively minor (a maximum of $300 per child), costing the state less than $25 million a year.

While the bill was amended to include tax breaks for public school parents’ expenses on school supplies and uniforms, those deductions have even less of an impact. Recent estimates by the Legislative Fiscal Office show that more than 85 percent of the bill’s benefits are likely to go to private school parents.

In the upcoming regular session, which begins March 31, the Legislature will be taking up another voucher-related issue that promises to rekindle the debate. In his proposed budget, Jindal included $10 million for a scholarship program to help students in the New Orleans area move out of failing public schools and into private and parochial schools. Jindal’s office has yet to release details on how the program will work.

As of last week, Superintendent Pastorek had not yet been informed about the program’s specifics but says he supports the state stepping in to help provide more options to New Orleans students.

“I think that where you have a failed system of schools, you need to consider giving choice to the kids,” Pastorek says. “What the governor is considering is a scholarship program; he distinguishes it from being a voucher. And I think that it’s born of that same kind of concern. How can we get kids an alternative where there doesn’t seem to be one?

“You know at some point,” he continues, “and this to me is the difficult issue that we’re really wrestling with, at some point, when do you say failing is enough? How many years does it need to be failing before we’re going to focus on the kids and not the schools?”

Republican Lafayette state Rep. Don Trahan, chair of the House Education Committee, notes that the scholarship program will likely generate a lot of debate in the state Legislature, but that ultimately he sees it succeeding. “It’s designed to help those kids in the recovery school district that badly need the help,” he says. Both Trahan and Pastorek maintain that Jindal’s proposals will not result in any decrease in funding toward public schools; Jindal’s budget slightly increases last year’s funding for public schools.

Danny Loar, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Citizens for Educational Choice, is the chief lobbyist for private and parochial schools pushing for further state support. Loar says he is encouraged by having the governor’s scholarship program in the budget as its own line item. In the past, he says, voucher-related funds have often been tied to public education funding through legislation.

Loar still expects heated debate on the issue.

“The teachers’ unions are going to be against it because they’re always against anything that’s for the private schools, it’s a matter of jobs to them. And the public school boards will probably oppose it also. They don’t like the concept of vouchers. This will be a very hard fight, but having the governor on your side in Louisiana certainly tends to level the playing field.”

Loar says the teacher unions too often try to pit themselves against private schools in a fight over money.

“We are not making money on this,” he says. “This is not the objective. We’re the church, and we do this out of a sense of trying to help students and parents who are caught in a very difficult situation. And that’s our argument. We do this because we’re church.”

But to many public education groups, the governor’s scholarship program represents another form of vouchers, which takes the state’s focus off its obligation to fix failing public schools — a move that could exacerbate educational challenges in New Orleans. The unions point out that private schools with selective admissions fail to provide for all students and also are not subjected to the same rigorous accountability standards as their public counterparts.

“Public schools are open to all,” says Joyce Haynes, president of the LAE. “We don’t select who comes. We teach and work with all. Spend the money to improve the public schools rather than to take away from them.”

In addition to Jindal’s scholarship program, another proposal raising eyebrows in the education community is $20 million the governor has proposed setting aside for a “flex pay” plan, which the teacher unions liken to a merit pay system.

Once again, Jindal’s office has yet to provide any details on the plan. According to Pastorek, the idea is to allocate some additional funds for school districts to use to fill hard-to-staff positions. Depending on the district, Pastorek says these jobs run the gamut from reading specialists to special education instructors to math teachers.

“We have many positions in the schools that we have a very difficult time hiring people to serve in,” he says. “And I think some of these districts would like to consider the prospect of paying some extra money to attract these teachers to come into their school system.”

Trahan agrees with the teacher unions that this could likely evolve into basing teacher salaries on their performance. “Across-the-board pay has traditionally been the way we pay teachers,” he says. “And in this session, that’s how we’re going to pay them again. But as we grow more and more in accountability and get a better handle on what teachers are doing what, I think you’re going to see at least a desire by the Legislature to look at something other than across-the-board pay, some type of pay for performance or value added pay.” Trahan declines to speculate on what kind of criteria the state would likely use to gauge performance and base teacher salaries on.

Teacher unions have been generally opposed to any type of merit pay. They worry this type of system can lead to inequalities that will unfairly punish and discourage certain teachers.

“Someone’s going to get left out,” Haynes says. “And unless a union is involved in making a plan, and how our folks can benefit and how everyone’s going to benefit, then we would be against it. Because it takes all of us to educate our children.”

In addition to their inherent opposition to some of the issues being discussed, perhaps an even bigger bone of contention for the teacher unions is the way in which they are being proposed. Even legislators close to the governor have had difficulty getting specifics on what to expect this coming session in regard to the governor’s scholarship and flex pay plans.

In the last special session, Sen. Ben Nevers, chair of the Senate Education Committee, vented that he was not told about the tax deduction plan ahead of time — an issue that partly led him to amend the bill to include tax deductions for public school parents. (Nevers initially proposed some $60 million worth of additional deductions for public school parents, before agreeing to a $3 million version.) A Democrat from Bogalusa, Nevers also has yet to receive details about Jindal’s scholarship proposal.

“I really don’t know how they’re going to implement the scholarship program,” Nevers says. “I realize that we have to maintain the school systems that we have there and continue to improve them. I’ll hold my decision on whether I support [scholarships] or not until I see the legislation.”

Haynes complains that the LAE has been unable to get an audience with the governor to discuss education issues, a problem the organization did not have with either of the two previous administrations.

“We have sent messages of all sorts,” Haynes says. “It’s a constant battle to try and get in the door.”

The Jindal administration did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. The Independent Weekly submitted questions to Jindal Press Secretary Melissa Sellers asking for the governor’s position on vouchers, tax deductions for parents of private school students and merit pay for teachers. When asked at Jindal’s March 17 Lafayette press conference about the pending request, Sellers promised the paper a phone interview with the governor but never returned a follow-up e-mail inquiry.

One issue teacher unions are seeing little debate over is the push to expand the number of charter schools in the state. For the upcoming session, Trahan filed a bill to lift the state’s cap on the number of charter schools allowed. The unions say there has been little evidence that charter schools are necessary and note that in New Orleans, charter schools have created a confusing two-district system with varying rules, policies and student enrollment requirements. The unions have also had concerns related to some charters’ policies for paying into teacher retirement benefits.

Melinda Mangham, a Lafayette High English teacher who also serves as the legislative chair for the LAE, says she’s concerned that the state Legislature, which experienced a drastic turnover last year, appears to be rubber stamping the governor’s agenda.

“Everybody’s afraid to question,” she says. “And it’s just ramrod all the way through. We’ve got 60-something new House members over there. They’re terrified of the governor right now. They’re all walking a chalk line, and anybody that’s over there will tell you that. It’s very interesting.”

Nevers sums up the feeling of many legislators by noting that because Louisiana’s public education system has consistently underperformed, he is open to any new approaches that may help turn the tide.

“I’m willing to consider any options,” Nevers says. “I think everything’s on the table, and we will openly discuss and try to do the best we can to improve education.”

Monaghan says that the Legislature too often looks to treat the symptoms rather than the cause of public education failures. He hopes to see the state open up a broader discussion on what the effects of its policies will be in the long term.

“I want to see the governor’s thinking on these issues,” he says. “I haven’t seen the depth of the discussion that gets to root cause.”

Monaghan says his organization will be lobbying hard in the upcoming session for legislators not to start down a slippery slope toward vouchers or merit pay. “Look at the tuition tax deduction issue that we just covered,” he says. “It wasn’t about the amount of money; it wasn’t about that. It wasn’t about inclusion of public school children parents. The battle was to establish that this is an agreed upon public policy in Louisiana. Now any good advocate who represents folks in that cause has already established the legitimacy of the policy. Now they are going to do all they can possibly do to increase the share that they receive.”

Pastorek disagrees. He says the proposals that will be debated do not represent sweeping new changes and that the state owes it to kids in struggling schools to offer them more opportunities.

“If the effort is a narrow and limited effort, then I don’t think it creates an unhealthy situation,” Pastorek says. “In an effort to help kids who don’t have alternatives, I think it’s reasonable.”

Additionally, Pastorek says creating more choice can foster improvements in public schools themselves.

“Let’s assume for a minute that the traditional public schools in New Orleans come back very strong and very successfully,” he says. “They could come back and be better than the parochial schools in New Orleans. So why would you send your kids to a parochial school? You know I think the problem that we’re having is we don’t necessarily believe the public schools can be as good as the other schools. I believe they can. I believe that’s our objective. So I see [these measures] as a temporary situation and an effort to try and resolve a temporal problem.

“We’ve gotta look at this from the perspective of the child,” he continues. “And if the problem is temporal, the child will come back [to the public school system]. If the problem’s not temporal, then does the child deserve to get a good education from a non-failed school? I think that’s what this is all about.”