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Jindal’s Plan: Gut Public Education (Part Two of Two)

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(I’ve decided to make this into a two-part post, instead of a three-parter).

In my first post on Governor Jindal’s recently announced proposal for education reforms, I focused on my own experience as a student in Louisiana public schools. While I will always value and appreciate the education I received, I also understand, personally, the real and pressing need for reform. I don’t fault Governor Jindal for seeking fundamental reform; I fault him for completely misdiagnosing the problem and for failing to believe in the promise of a robust, equitable, and successful public education system.

When Jindal announced his sweeping package of proposed reforms, he wasn’t in front of a group of educators and students; the speech wasn’t delivered in a high school gymnasium or a middle school auditorium. It was at the annual meeting of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), which describes itself as “the largest and most effective business lobbying group in Louisiana” (emphasis mine). That’s right: His bold and sweeping vision for education reform wasn’t addressed to public school teachers and students; it was rolled out in front of the largest group of business lobbyists in the State.

Despite the transcendent rhetoric about the economic value of a quality education, the backdrop chosen by Governor Jindal perhaps unwittingly reinforced something many already know: With the right set of policies in place, there is a ton of public money to be made by privatizing education. Some may suggest that this is perfectly acceptable, that it’s about establishing a set of incentives to create “entrepreneurial partnerships” in the free market. And wow, that would sound great, if it were even remotely true.

I wonder what Governor Bobby Jindal thinks about the United States government’s bailout of the automobile industry. Considering his hypocrisy on the stimulus act (opposing it vociferously while criss-crossing the State doling out oversized checks in front of the cameras), I imagine he’d be hard-pressed to provide a direct answer. Because even a man opposed to spending money for volcano monitoring would be hard-pressed to come up with an argument about why the federal bailout of the automobile industry was a failure. Because it wasn’t, and neither, for that matter, was the stimulus, which Jindal milked, more than practically anyone else, for maximum political advantage.

Why do I bring this up in the context of educational reform? Because, for some, when the government loans money to keep private-sector businesses afloat during a time of severe economic calamity, it’s engaging in an insipid form of socialism; it’s undermining the free market. Yet when the government gives money to the private-sector so that it can monetize and capitalize off of public assets and public institutions, it’s somehow capitalism at its core. I’d suggest that you cannot have it both ways. You cannot claim that loaning public money to private companies in peril is socialism, while also holding that giving public money for private companies to undermine and cannibalize public education is capitalism.

That’s what the real fight is about.

Many of Jindal’s announced reforms focus on teacher pay, hiring and firing practices, and tenure. I may disagree with Governor Jindal vehemently on a number of issues, but I have never doubted his political acumen. There’s a good reason he front-loaded his education reform speech with talking points on employment and personnel policies: That’s the fight he wants to have; it’s the one he knows he can win.

For one, on many of these issues, the Governor is actually right: No one questions that we need to reform the ways in which our education system rewards good teachers and gets rid of bad teachers. The question, though, is and has always been: What’s the best and most objective matrix for determining an individual teacher’s success? It can’t simply be how well a teacher’s students performed on a standardized test in any given year. And Governor Jindal wisely acknowledged this, though he didn’t ever explain how, exactly, he planned to evaluate teachers based on “student achievement;” it’s an amorphous and subjective term, and if Jindal were more serious, he would have explained what he meant.

Likely, it’s because he doesn’t actually have a new and innovative plan for evaluating student achievement and teacher performance, aside from giving unelected political appointees (the superintendents) carte blanche authority over hiring and firing while also completely neutering the concept of tenure. I hate to break the news: This is where Jindal wants to take the fight. If the fight is over the way we hire and fire teachers, then the Governor won’t ever have to defend the real meat of his plan: Vouchers.

It’s the business lobbyists versus the teacher unions.

With all due respect to Joyce Haynes, the President of the Louisiana Association of Educators, she’s playing right into the Governor’s hands. Two days ago, while criticizing Jindal’s reform plans, she told WAFB News, “Those that get white collar salaries and look back need to remember teachers teach all professions, yet we pay them like they are slaves.
The Jindal team were likely salivating after hearing this from the head of the LAE; indeed, Jindal issued an almost instant response to the LAE and Haynes:
This is a blueprint to go backwards and keep Louisiana at the bottom in education. It’s clear that some of these suggestions come from the national education union which goes to show you that Louisiana union leaders are taking their cues from Washington, D.C., not Louisiana teachers. Simply adding more money is not the answer. We are already wasting nearly a billion dollars of taxpayer money on failing schools. The reality is that we have increased K-12 funding over the past four years, but we need to be smarter about how we spend these dollars. We also shouldn’t be watering down our teacher evaluation law. Teacher evaluations must be based on student achievement. It’s common sense to reward good teachers and remove failing teachers who refuse to improve. Union leaders continue to ignore the needs of great teachers across the state and are holding them back from being rewarded. That’s offensive to our teachers.
- Gov. Bobby Jindal

To be sure, Ms. Haynes had some legitimate points. She questioned the wisdom of using the Recovery School District (RSD) as a model to be emulated statewide, pointing out that the RSD is still “at the bottom of test scores.” That’s fair, and it’s worth serious discussion considering the recent appointment of John White as the State Superintendent of Public Education.

But it’s completely lost, because Ms. Haynes then made an almost comically tone-deaf and hyperbolic comment about “white collar” folks paying teachers “like they are slaves.” Governor Jindal didn’t even need to address this; all he did, instead, was to issue a blanket criticism of “union leaders.” He should have added, “Thank you for agreeing to play on my home field and for lobbing that enormous softball right over the center of the plate.”

****

I firmly and steadfastly believe that our teachers deserve higher pay, and without any doubt, there is a direct correlation between the salaries we pay our public educators and the overall quality of our public education. But when 44% of Louisiana schools are receiving D’s and F’s, you’re not going to get anywhere by advancing the implied argument that things would be much better if teachers weren’t “paid like they are slaves.” The problem isn’t merely that Ms. Haynes employed provocative and divisive rhetoric. Slaves, after all, weren’t paid; they were treated as human chattel. Our teachers may be underpaid, but let’s be serious adults here.

Governor Jindal wants to take the fight directly to teacher’s unions, and apparently, they are all too willing to oblige. And again, why does he want to fight these unions? Why did he announce his plans for education in front of the largest group of business lobbyists in the State?

Because his plan isn’t about reforming public education; it’s about bankrolling private education, and hopefully, at a healthy profit for at least a few of the clients of LABI.

Joyce Haynes may not get it, but John Maginnis does:

Tenure may be the most personally acrimonious issue, especially when teachers back home start getting in legislators’ faces. But, judging from editorial reaction, potentially the most explosive point advanced by the governor is a massive statewide expansion of education vouchers, or “opportunity scholarships,” as re-coined by proponents. Whatever they are called, the issue will provoke the most heated debate and, on the scale proposed, could tear apart the coalition of progressive reformers and social conservatives that back Jindal’s overall plan.

He proposes offering tuition vouchers for every child in a school graded C, D or F and in a family with an income under 250 percent of the federal poverty level, which comes to 380,000 of the public school enrollment of 705,000.

In plain English, while Ms. Haynes, ostensibly representing the LAE, suggests that teachers are “paid like slaves,” Jindal is advancing and promoting a plan that, if ever fully implemented, would totally and completely obliterate public education and undermine the value of hundreds of millions of dollars in publicly-owned assets.

There are a few major problems with Jindal’s plan to provide vouchers to more than half of Louisiana school children. It’s completely infeasible. We simply don’t have the infrastructure. Governor Jindal likely understands the sheer deficiency in infrastructure– that is, the actual buildings and campuses that house our schools– would prevent the vast majority of those who could qualify for a voucher to attend a nearby private school from ever being able to use the voucher. There simply aren’t enough private school classrooms to ever accommodate such an influx of students, and the overwhelming majority of private schools impose strict caps of enrollment. Thanks for the offer of a State voucher, but this other kid’s family can give us a cashier’s check.

So, if the new Superintendent’s comments about entrepreneurial partnerships are indicative of anything, it is that Jindal and company ultimately seek to steer public dollars in education to help build and maintain a parallel, for-profit infrastructure. While our innercity schools rot, they can point to construction jobs created in collaboration with the “private sector.”

Governor Jindal is not serious about reforming public education; he’s serious about getting applause from LABI.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent article, Lamar… and you left me wanting more. Was the third part you envisioned going to be about voucher systems and detail of how they’ve been proposed/implmented in other States? If so, I’d have enjoyed reading your views on the subject.

    Cheers,
    -Rick

    January 30, 2012
  2. Nikki #

    This article was very informative, and clearly discusses the reform issues that are plaguing our schools. Major corporations have become increasingly involved in operating inner schools; however, the schools that they are operating are educationally dysfunctional. Furthermore, please review the following schools that include feckless rules in their handbook to discourage enrollment, especially Joseph S. Clark that hasn’t had the necessary resources to educate the students that attend the school.

    February 5, 2012

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