During the last few weeks, as Governor Bobby Jindal crisscrossed the country on a failed campaign to become the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, back in Louisiana, critics of his ambitious, expansive school voucher program have finally exposed the program for what it is: A hastily-constructed and likely unconstitutional scheme to provide millions in taxpayer dollars every year to the radical religious right, new earth creationists, and at least one self-proclaimed prophet.
Today, we learned that Penny Destugue, the President of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), announced that she would be asking her board to delay implementation of the program for at least six of the pre-qualified schools until the State more adequately and thoroughly vets schools approved for vouchers. Apparently, unlike Governor Jindal, BESE President Destugue has bothered to read the news about the voucher program. She’s read the stories about the program qualifying a school in Ruston that relies on DVD instruction instead of teachers (a school that, by the way, was approved for more voucher spots than any other in Louisiana). She’s read about the millions of dollars the program will spend on schools that teach new earth creationism instead of science. By now, President Destugue has probably heard of the school in New Orleans that is operated by a man who thinks he is a prophet and an apostle, and hopefully, she’s also heard of the schools that blatantly discriminate against students and teachers on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.
And after learning all of this, President Destugue is doing what any reasonable person would do in her position: She’s raising a red flag.
In my previous post, I wrote about Governor Jindal and Superintendent John White’s failure to properly deliberate on the schools they qualified for voucher funding and why that could spell trouble. Superintendent White is now attempting to withhold public records documenting the process by which he and his staff used to evaluate schools; Mr. White, disingenuously asserting a “deliberative process” exemption, says he will eventually release these records, but only after students have already enrolled in these schools. It’s an insulting position. On the one hand, Superintendent White argues that “parental choice” is his paramount concern, and at the same time, he is completely unwilling to provide parents with the same information upon which he relied in qualifying schools for vouchers. If Superintendent White truly cares about “parental choice,” then he’d be more than happy to give parents every ounce of information he could possibly provide them.
But that’s not the only problem with Superintendent White and Governor Jindal’s position on “parental choice.”
Governor Jindal doesn’t have much patience for lawyers. When problems arise, Governor Jindal is more interested in taking swift, decisive action than hearing from attorneys about the nuances and potential legal ambiguities of his decisions. Jindal, remember, wrote a memoir, Leadership in Crisis, about this very thing, his instinct to act first and ask questions later. But as the voucher debacle proves, there’s a pitfall to such bravado. While some may admire Jindal for “leading from his gut,” to borrow a phrase from George W. Bush, more often than not, this style of leadership, leadership that values impulsivity for the sake of political expendiency instead of leadership that values policies that contain a deliberative process to ensure fairness, fails. It’s laziness and a dereliction of duty.
In Governor Jindal’s case, the actual goal is and has always been empowering and enriching his base on the religious right, but the pitch is “giving parents the choice to pull their children away from failing schools.” And fortunately for him, he’s been enabled by an equally impulsive Superintendent of Education and a whole host of astroturf corporate lobbyists who are paid to pose as grassroots activists. Among African-Americans, Jindal has been helped by a DC-based, corporately-funded non-profit group, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (the BAEO), which suddenly appeared from thin-air in Louisiana in order to sell Jindal’s voucher plan to inner-city, majority African-American neighborhoods by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in marketing, outreach, and organization.
They were all well-prepared, at first, to fight back against their critics: sweeping through the initiative in the legislature during the middle of the night, shutting out protesting teachers and critics from the deliberations, and shrewdly framing the debate about unions instead of the real issue, vouchers.
Several months ago, I wrote about how I thought the teachers unions in Louisiana were foolishly off-message with their responses to Jindal’s education reform, but it’s also true that Governor Jindal smartly kept these unions off-message. In rushing through the biggest privatization scheme for education in our nation’s history, Governor Jindal was able to “move the target” by insisting that his critics were not concerned with vouchers; they were fighting him, he implied, because he wanted to reform teacher tenure. He made his critics look like self-interested bureaucrats who cared more about collecting a paycheck than the future of our children. In so doing, he caught his critics off-balance, at once attempting to suggest that they were genuinely motivated by their care and hope for public education while, at the same time, also defending their jobs, their benefits, and their salaries. While his critics pivoted to respond to accusations and implications about their own integrity, Governor Jindal and the legislature easily breezed through the centerpiece of his agenda, a massive voucher system.
Governor Jindal and others had brilliantly scripted how they were going to pass “education reform,” but they hadn’t given a minute’s notice to how they were going to actually implement these reforms. Jindal rolled out his “victory” on education reform as he campaigned across the country for Mitt Romney, and in exchange, Mitt Romney put Jindal on his Vice Presidential short-list and showered praise on him as an exemplar and innovator of best practices in education.
For Jindal and company, the problem is, at the time, no one thought to ask, “How can we ensure we implement this constitutionally?” They were only concerned with: “How can we make sure this law reads like it’s constitutional?” And yes, there’s a big, big difference.
In the last few months, as Jindal has spent the bulk of his time campaigning for yet another position, his hand-selected Superintendent and his team have failed abysmally in ensuring the proper implementation of these education reforms. They so desperately wanted to demonstrate the public demand for vouchers that they willingly and whole-heartedly qualified funding for every single school that applied; the only schools (two or three) that have been excluded from the program were retroactively rejected.
No doubt, Jindal and his lawyers will point to the 2002 United States Supreme Court case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris as the basis for establishing the constitutionality of the vouchers for private religious schools. At first blush, the program in Louisiana and the program challenged in Zelman may seem similar. In Zelman, the Court, in a split decision, affirmed the constitutionality of a voucher program set up in Cleveland, Ohio, a program that almost exclusively benefitted private religious schools. At the time, President Bush praised the decision as a major victory for school vouchers. But there are some key differences between Zelman and the program in Louisiana, and they’re important differences.
The issue is not whether Louisiana’s voucher program has a “valid secular purpose,” which is the first part of the Court’s five-part test. It’s easy enough for Governor Jindal to argue that the law was created to address the problem students in “failing” public schools, and that, in and of itself, would likely satisfy that requirement.
Governor Jindal’s program may meet the criteria for the first part of the five part test; unfortunately, for him, it probably won’t pass the other four parts.