Schoolhouse rocked: Bobby Jindal brings real education reform to Louisiana
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has always been a man in a hurry. By the age of 20, he was an honors graduate of Brown University with double majors in public policy and biology. By 23, he had completed a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford (having politely declined admission to Yale Law and Harvard Medical School) and taken a position with the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
At 25, he was the youngest-ever secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals; at 27, he was the executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare; at 28, president of the University of Louisiana system. By 30, Jindal was an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in Washington. Within four years, he’d be sworn in as a U.S. congressman from Louisiana’s First District. Within another three, he’d be governor of the Pelican State.
Thus, even at the ripe old age of 40, when Bobby Jindal tells you he’s going to do something, it becomes a matter of mathematical certainty. So when Jindal pronounced in his second inaugural address, delivered in January of this year, that “as long as there are children who are not receiving a quality education here in Louisiana — our mission is not accomplished,” it should have served as a heads up to the state’s educational establishment that reform was about to bear down on them with gale force.
Despite that warning shot, the defenders of the status quo — led by two unions, the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers — were caught flat-footed. And now, Jindal, less than three months after his Inauguration Day promise of root and branch reform to the state’s dysfunctional education system (44 percent of Louisiana schools receive grades of “D” or “F” in the state’s accountability ratings; test performance is in the bottom five nationally), is about to sign some of the most sweeping education reform legislation the nation has ever seen.
The laws passed by the Louisiana legislature last week read like a conservative education reformer’s wish list. Teacher tenure, which previously required three years of employment, will now be contingent on educators receiving a “highly effective” rating in five out of six consecutive years. Back-to-back “ineffective” ratings will be a firing offense. Seniority will no longer be a dominant factor in layoff decisions. Decisions about teacher employment and pay will largely devolve to principals and superintendents (they had previously been dominated by local school boards), allowing them to act with the dispatch becoming of an executive.
The reforms go well beyond personnel matters, however. They open up opportunities for charter schools, allowing new providers to enter the market. They offer vouchers that will allow poor and middle-income children in Louisiana’s worst schools to attend private or parochial institutions. They even expand opportunities for online learning.
Had Jindal tried something nearly as audacious in a union-dominated state like California, Illinois or New York, the proposal surely would have been stillborn in committee. But in right-to-work Louisiana, where the unions aren’t subsidized by compulsory membership, the best that organized labor can do is flail in anger after the fact. And flail they have.
In a move reminiscent of the outrage displayed by union forces opposing Governor Scott Walker’s reforms to public employment in Wisconsin, Louisiana teachers marched around the statehouse in Baton Rouge to protest Jindal’s proposal, predicting an imminent educational apocalypse.
Furthering the Wisconsin parallels, some of Jindal’s most fervent critics have launched a recall effort against the governor and his legislative ally, Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, in the wake of the legislation. The effort isn’t expected to go anywhere, however (as Ben Wolfgang noted in The Washington Times earlier this week, there have been at least four prior recall attempts against Jindal, all of which have failed). That owes in part to the political culture of Louisiana. But it also stems from the fact that the state’s voters don’t seem to share the sense of panic besetting its special interests.
Louisianans are sharp enough to realize that the dominant mantra of the education establishment — “spend more money, get better results” — has been disproved virtually everywhere it’s been tried over the past few decades. They’re also not susceptible to the doomsday fears that usually accompany efforts to create charter schools or implement voucher programs because such anxieties are contradicted by experience.
In the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the state converted many of the public schools in New Orleans into charters — and the results were breathtaking. During the 2010 school year, more than 61 percent of New Orleans public school students attended a charter institution. In the five years since Katrina, graduation rates shot up by 11 percentage points and the percentage of failing schools in the city dropped from 2/3 to less than 1/3. Public education in New Orleans didn’t merely recover: It came back stronger than it had ever been before.
Louisiana has one other thing going for it. Unlike other states where the public sector exists as a sinecure for those seeking cushy benefits and lifetime employment, at least some of Louisiana’s teachers seem to have kept sight of the fact that they’re still public servants. A recent story in The New Orleans Times-Picayune characterizes a local grade school teacher worrying “that giving principals leeway to pay teachers what they want is simply unfair.” After an extended monologue, she’s interrupted by a colleague who responds, “I understand that it’s a job. You’re going to get paid what … they think your value is. That’s everyone’s job outside of teaching.”
Quite so. It’s heartening to think that under Bobby Jindal’s new system, that’s just the kind of teacher who might be up for a raise.
Troy Senik, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. He is also an editor at Ricochet.com and a contributor for the Manhattan Institute.