Jindal aims high on education overhaul

by Heather Miller

Gov. Bobby Jindal could sure use a "Gang of Five" of his own as he marches toward the trenches of reform for Louisiana's poor-performing public education system.

The feathers of opposition are already ruffling just days after Gov. Bobby Jindal unveiled his bold proposal for statewide education reform, marking what's sure to be a grueling few months as the governor fights for sweeping reform measures that have been deemed "the biggest change in Louisiana public education since desegregation."

According to The Times-Picayune, Jindal's plan calls for eliminating teacher tenure, "fast-tracking" charter schools and, among several other proposals targeting "choice," expanding the Recovery School District's current voucher program for private schools to a statewide initiative

Jindal's reform is largely focused on an expansion of the education experiment taking place in New Orleans through the Recovery School District, a state Department of Education-run school district that Lafayette Parish School System Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper has been a part of for the past few years.

Asked about Jindal's bold plan, Cooper says "the devil's always in the details."

"I want to find out more of the details," he says. "What I know about my experience in New Orleans is that charters and vouchers and choice are not a silver bullet. The first thing, my responsibility as superintendent, is to get our schools to working within the system we already have. If that doesn't work, then we owe it to our children to try whatever else does."

Private school vouchers have so far proven to be the most contentious of Jindal's plan, which would make 380,000 students in Louisiana eligible for publicly funded private school. Cooper said after Wednesday night's Lafayette Parish School Board meeting that the lack of accountability in private schools, which don't answer to the state and aren't required to administer LEAP and other standardized tests, is "an issue."

"Private schools don't have to do any of the things we have to do as public schools," Cooper says. "You would like to know that these vouchers are being used to send children to a school that's going to be better. But how will we ever know that? Between all of this rhetoric, we have to do what's best for children, whether it's a charter school or something else."

The governor's proposal also includes putting an end to automatic annual pay raises for teachers and giving superintendents more hiring and firing power, both of which have been strongly opposed by teachers' unions and school boards in the past. The Legislature, according to The T-P, has already shot down measures that would have shifted some authority from school boards to superintendents:

Jindal chose to outline his plan for the first time in front of an overwhelmingly friendly audience. He spoke Tuesday morning at an annual meeting of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, a group that helped the governor with a largely successful bid to win allies on the state board of education during last year's elections.

Speaking for just under a half an hour, Jindal framed his plan as a dire necessity for the state's economy and - in a room of private-sector executives - compared Louisiana's existing school system to a dysfunctional business.

The specifics that Jindal released Tuesday foreshadow a hard-fought session this spring at the state Legislature, which will likely have to bring forward a raft of bills to realize the governor's vision. The governor and his allies will meet furious resistance from teachers unions, local school boards and others who see Jindal's agenda as an attack on public schools.

What's more, the focus on private school vouchers may threaten to divide a reform movement in Louisiana that has typically enjoyed bipartisan support. In a telephone interview, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu commended Jindal for putting education center stage and said she looked forward to working with him. But when pressed on specifics, Landrieu added that she is in favor of only a "limited" voucher program, especially given the success of public charter schools in New Orleans.

"I would not think that vouchers would be the center of our reform effort," Landrieu said, although she declined to comment on the specific limitations established in Jindal's proposal. "It hasn't been and it shouldn't be in the future."

Read full coverage from The Times-Pic here.