Summary:   In Louisiana, a tough and savvy governor has succeeded in enacting an impressive package of school reforms. The teachers’ unions are horrified and using every legal trick to stop changes. But citizens—and legislators from both parties—are pleased. Could this portend similar reforms in other states?

The battle for education reform in Louisiana has major implications both for the future of the nation’s schools and for the future of American politics. Reform legislation pushed through the state’s legislature by Gov. Bobby Jindal promises to remake Louisiana’s educational system, freeing schools from the chains of bureaucracy, corruption, and union dominance. First, though, the Jindal measures must survive a series of union-backed legal challenges. (More on that later.)

How significant are the reforms?

  • The Economist noted that Jindal’s “bold plan weakens teacher tenure, and therefore the teachers’ unions, while greatly expanding the use of school vouchers and the reach of charter schools.”
  • Education Week reported: “Over the objections of teachers’ unions and many Democrats, Louisiana’s Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature have crafted one of the most exhaustive education overhauls of any state in the country, through measures that will dramatically expand families’ access to public money to cover the costs of both private school tuition and individual courses offered by a menu of providers.”
  • The Wall Street Journal pointed out that, under the reforms, parents “can keep their children in their local public school, but they can also try to get Johnny into a more demanding charter school, or a virtual school, or into special language or career-training courses, among other options…. Louisiana is also making life easier for charter schools, with new authorizing boards, a fast-track for high-performing networks, and access to facilities equal to that of traditional public schools. The new laws seek to strengthen superintendents and principals over local school boards, which are bastions of bureaucratic and union intransigence.”

Future president?

Jindal, who recently became head of the Republican Governors Association, is at or near the top of most lists of future GOP presidential prospects. If he wants to run for president, he has lots of time: In 2040, he’ll still be younger than President Reagan was when he was elected. But if he ever runs, Jindal’s chances for the Oval Office depend to a great degree on his performance as governor, especially his record in improving Louisiana’s schools.

His main selling point as a possible president is his image as an überwonk—someone whose knowledge and understanding of politics, public policy, and government operations is far beyond that of most mortal politicians. A critical goal for Jindal is to combine that image with real achievements in standing up to, and beating, powerful anti-reform forces such as the teachers’ unions.

A Rhodes Scholar and the son of immigrants from India, Jindal became head of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals in 1993 at age 25. He has served as executive director of a national commission on education reform, as president of the University of Louisiana system, and as an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. After losing the governor’s race in 2003 (when Democrats played the “race card”), he ran for and was elected to Congress. He ran for governor again in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the people of Louisiana—a state known for bribery, vote fraud, and other forms of political corruption—were eager for reform-minded, competent leadership. Jindal won the governorship in 2007, defeating his closest opponent 54% to 17%. When he ran for re-election in 2011, he defeated his closest opponent 66% to 18%. Prior to Jindal, only three Republicans had been elected governor of Louisiana in 125 years.

In a manner unusually savvy for Republicans, Jindal used his political capital to have his allies elected to key offices and moved them into critical positions in the state legislature. Largely due to the governor, Republicans now control both houses of the legislature and all seven nonfederal statewide offices. Jindal campaigned to get reformers on the state school board, and they won 10 of the 11 seats.

A mess, and a plan to fix it

The Governor’s political success made his reforms possible, but what made them necessary was the sorry state of Louisiana schools. According to Blueprint Louisiana, a nonprofit group based in Baton Rouge that prioritizes “student success over traditional practices,” Louisiana was ranked 48th of 50 states for K-12 student achievement in 2011, with one-third of the state’s students performing below grade level and 44% of schools classified as failing. Louisiana ranked last in the number of fourth graders who read proficiently and had the highest drop-out rate in the country.

In New Orleans before Katrina, it was so bad that, in one school, the 2003 valedictorian—the valedictorian—failed the state’s high school exit exam (the test required before graduation) five times and, on the ACT, placed in the first percentile, that is, at the absolute bottom. Serious reform efforts actually began on a small scale that year, when the Louisiana legislature created the Recovery School District (RSD) to take over failing schools. Reform accelerated after Katrina in 2005, when most of the city’s schools were under water and the city was largely depopulated. The RSD was then expanded throughout the city, and student choice was greatly expanded.

Today, most public-school students in New Orleans attend charter schools, and test scores and graduation rates are rising.

About 1,800 students in New Orleans were taking advantage of the program when Jindal proposed expanding it vastly to cover as many as 380,000 students, or some 54% of the state’s student population.

That proposal covers students who attend a school with a low grade (C, D, or F, about 72% of state schools) and whose family income does not exceed 250% of the official poverty line (some $58,000 for a family of four). These students would be eligible for a voucher to attend a nonpublic school. The state currently spends between $8,500 and $12,000 a year on each public school pupil, depending on how you count, while private and parochial school tuition is usually much less. Thus, voucher supporters argue, the public schools would end up with more money on a per-pupil basis than they now enjoy. The average “scholarship,” as the vouchers are called, is projected at $5,300.

Another provision of the reform plan allows students in low-performing schools to use a portion of the voucher for individual courses at colleges, or for technical or vocational programs, or for online courses, or for a high-performing public school.

Although a majority of students statewide may be eligible for the voucher program, the number who would actually take advantage of it would be smaller, of course. Implementing such reforms takes time, including the time necessary to expand the number of seats in charter, private, and parochial schools. By last September, state officials said 4,944 students had taken advantage of the newly expanded voucher program. (About 10,000 applied, but the number of available seats was limited.) Of those who took advantage, some 14% came from schools graded C, 69% from schools graded D, and 17% from schools that were officially failing (grade F). Some 125 private and parochial schools participated. Notably, one public school in Saint Landry Parish (Louisiana calls its counties “parishes”) was so high-performing that 20 students used their vouchers there.

Of the students initially benefitting, 86% were classified by the government as African-American. When teachers’ unions filed a lawsuit to overturn the reforms on technical grounds that involved voting procedures in the state legislature,

Eric Lewis, state director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said such suits are “just another tool” in the unions’ “arsenal” against reform.

Freedman against the status  quo

The late Milton Friedman, a Nobel prize-winning economist who died in 2006, was the father of the school voucher movement, promoting the idea as far back as the 1950s. Today, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, named in honor of Milton and his wife and collaborator Rose, fights America’s educational status quo, calling it immoral for sticking the poorest kids from the worst neighborhoods in the worst schools. “It is immoral that the quality of schooling is based on the value and location of your home,” the Foundation declares. “School choice gives parents the freedom to choose a school based on its quality and their child’s needs, not their home address.” Last year the Foundation estimated that, across the country, more than 212,000 students were using vouchers or tax-funded scholarships in 30 such programs. So Jindal’s voucher proposal is part of a nationwide trend.

But the Jindal reforms go far beyond vouchers. One aspect that hits unions directly is the reform of tenure, the system that prevents teachers from being fired except under extraordinary circumstances. Previously, teachers in Louisiana received this protection—they “earned tenure”—after just three years in the classroom. Under the reforms, teachers would receive tenure only after being rated as “highly effective” for five years in a six-year period, while teachers rated as “ineffective” would lose tenure and be required to re-earn it. (One estimate is that roughly 10% of teachers would fall into the “ineffective” category, which would be based in part on students’ test scores.) Unions oppose the use of test scores to measure teachers’ effectiveness. Instead, they favor a system of peer review, which critics call a “popularity contest” that favors union members.

Patrick Brennan of the National Review Institute observes that “after just three years of their contract being renewed by their school district, teachers are made almost entirely immune from firing. There is no plausible justification for any teacher tenure at all; the policy is just the seigniorage teachers’ unions have extracted with the strength of collective bargaining combined with affection for public education.”

Jindal’s reforms would also scrap the statewide salary schedule. Teachers would continue to be paid at their current levels, but future raises would be tied to decisions by principals and other officials. The current system of last-hired-first-fired, which often forces newer and better teachers to be the first to go in layoffs, would be scrapped. Another reform would allow a majority of the parents at a failing school to vote to trigger a state takeover of that school.

Charter schools would also be easier to expand under the reforms. Various groups, including universities and nonprofits with an “educational mission,” would be able to authorize new charter schools, which are public schools that are autonomous from state and local school boards. The state board of education could authorize up to five authorizers in each of the state’s eight regional labor markets.

Another section of the reforms removes the requirement that 75% of teachers at a charter school be “certified”—that is, be certified as qualified to teach by the education establishment. Certification provisions often restrict the quality of teachers. For example, certification provisions often reward teachers just for taking college courses in education that amount to little more than exposure to left-wing propaganda, while people who are highly qualified in a particular subject are denied the opportunity to teach. (Albert Einstein would not have been “certified” to teach physics to high schoolers.)

Teachers’ unions claim certification ensures that teachers know what they’re doing in the classroom, but plenty of teachers who have taken education courses seem unable to raise students’ performance.

Another provision in the plan increases the use of online education, which gives students access to some of the best teachers in the world via the Internet. That’s a twenty-first-century idea that teachers’ unions find particularly galling.

Union reaction

The unions reacted predictably to the Jindal proposals. One day, as the legislature considered the measures, an estimated 4,000 teachers came to the state Capitol in Baton Rouge to protest. About 750 were allowed in the building, and some of those were allowed into the committee hearings, while others watched the proceedings from other rooms hooked up with video. Outside the Capitol, protesters accused the Governor of conducting a “war against teachers” and held a Cajun-style “funeral for education reform” that a commentator called “raucous.”

Four school systems were forced to shut down during the protests because so many of their teachers took the day off. Most of the missing teachers claimed personal days rather than sick days. Nevertheless, in a sign that Baton Rouge Republicans lack the timidity associated with Washington, D.C. Republicans, one of the legislative committees passed a rule that required teachers testifying before the committee to declare whether they were using sick leave. Simply asking the question served to highlight the fact that the teachers were abandoning their jobs for the day. An anti-reform state representative called this transparency rule “intimidation” and “an attempt to embarrass people.”

Another sign of the determination of Jindal and his allies: the howls of protest that teachers’ unions made over the speed with which reforms were enacted. For example, the state’s House Education Committee approved the charter/voucher measure after a marathon 11-hour hearing on the third day of the legislature’s almost-three-month session. The entire package was signed into law just three months after it was proposed. “Educators couldn’t help but walk away feeling blindsided by the Governor’s intense rush to pass his package,” complained Joyce Haynes, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators. Yet in fact the measures were so popular that, in four separate votes, a quarter to a half of Democrats voted aye, and the reforms passed overwhelmingly.

Union officials treated reformers with disdain. For example, a top union official, Dr. Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), suggested that pro-reform groups such as the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) and the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL) had no business getting involved in the education issue. “I don’t see anyone with LABI or CABL with the experience to accurately gauge the work teachers do in the classroom. I would never put myself up as someone who understands the complexities of business. Number One, schools are not a business, Number Two, classrooms are not a business, and Number Three, we are trained professionals in what we do. They can sit down with us anytime they are interested in learning how a classroom works.” (Perhaps Walker-Jones is overly modest regarding his group’s understanding of business complexity. Its most recently available tax return, for 2010, puts the salary of its president at $137,401 and its executive director at $125,480, with $2.4 million out of the LAE’s $3.8 million gross receipts spent on salaries.)

In their anger at Jindal and his allies, teachers’ unions pledged to emulate unions in Wisconsin that sought to recall Governor Scott Walker in retaliation for his reforms. A campaign was launched to recall Jindal and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley.

The Jindal recall would have required more than 950,000 petition signatures statewide, equivalent to one-third of registered voters and collected within a 180-day period, while Kleckley could have been recalled with approximately 13,000 petition signatures from his House district. The recall campaigns featured websites, Facebook sites, yard signs, T-shirts, and door-to-door campaigning. But the state Republican Party fought back, running thousands of dollars in TV ads in support of Kleckley (who, because of the small size of his district, was seen as a more likely recall victim than Jindal).

Both recall attempts failed. Supporters of the recall effort refused to file the petitions or otherwise release them to the public; so it’s not known how many signatures they obtained. Critics said they failed so badly that the unions didn’t want to embarrass themselves by releasing the signatures, but the campaign’s spokesmen said, “It was determined that there is no need to expose anyone to the ugliness of possible retribution from the governor’s office for having signed the recall petitions.”

For his part, Jindal called teachers’ unions “Stone Age” and said, “Were it not for the teachers’ union’s Herculean efforts, every low-income family would probably have the opportunity to enroll their child in a better-performing school.”

As much as unions seethed over the passage of reform, supporters of better education were jubilant. Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, called the reforms “both politically savvy and good public policy” and important both “as an individual event and part of a trend.”

The pro-reform website Dropout Nation noted that “the passage of the plan, along with one that would allow for the opening of more charter schools, is another reminder of the important shift that is happening, not only within Louisiana’s public education system, but throughout American public education as a whole. Families once relegated to the sidelines are taking more-powerful roles in shaping education decision-making. It’s past time for this to happen. It is absolutely immoral and unacceptable to deny families, especially those from the poor and minority households, the ability to reshape education for their kids and keep them out of the worst education in this nation has to offer.” The education reform organization Students First ranked Louisiana first in the nation “for policies that prioritize the interests of children.”

The Friedman Foundation, along with Louisiana’s Pelican Institute for Public Policy, conducted a poll which indicated that over 60% of Louisiana voters favored the Jindal reforms. Other polls found similar results.

Judicial roadblocks

Louisiana’s two major teachers’ unions (the LAE and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers or LFT), along with many of their local affiliates and 63 local school boards, have filed lawsuits to block the reforms. In November, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled that the voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish was unconstitutional because it interfered with the school district’s ability to comply with a desegregation order. Brian Blackwell, a lawyer representing the LAE, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “I think it’s hard for the local school system … to plan equal school ratios by race [if] they don’t know whether next year those kids are going to be in voucher schools or not.” In other words, the program is illegal because it would complicate the government’s efforts to practice racism.

Judge Lemelle issued an injunction to stop the program. But in January the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the state to continue, on the ground that the state is likely to win its appeal of Lemelle’s ruling. Meanwhile, a state judge, Tim Kelley, declared in December that the program violates the state constitution, mainly because of its funding mechanism. Judge Kelley allowed the program to continue while the case is on appeal, and even if the state loses the appeal, it appears the legislature will be able to fix the problem by changing the way the program is funded.

Still, Jindal reacted angrily. “Today’s ruling is wrong-headed and a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education. That opportunity is a chance that every child deserves, and we will continue the fight to give it to them. The opinion sadly ignores the rights of families who do not have the means necessary to escape failing schools. On behalf of the citizens that cast their votes for reform, the parents who want more choices, and the kids who deserve a chance, we will appeal today’s decision, and I’m confident we will prevail.”

Jindal added:

“At first they tried to challenge us at the ballot box by voting for status quo candidates for the state board of education, but Louisianians voted for reform candidates.

Then they tried in the Legislature, but Democrats and Republicans voted for reform legislation. They tried recalling the reformers and failed. They even said that poor parents “have no clue” how to choose a school for their children. And now they are making a last-ditch effort to stifle our reforms in court. We expect reform to prevail again in court this week.

The opponents of reform want to go backwards. They want to go back to the days of more schools failing and they want to disenfranchise the thousands of students who are already taking advantage of our reforms to get a chance at a great education. To take from students an opportunity they so badly need, and thoroughly deserve, would certainly be unjust.”

U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D), who is up for reelection next year and whose brother is the mayor of New Orleans, expressed opposition to the reforms and support for the judge. “It is no surprise that State District Judge Tim Kelley today ruled the unnecessarily aggressive and overreaching statewide voucher program unconstitutional,” Landrieu said. “A strategic use of state-funded vouchers could be appropriate, but this diversion of public education dollars was a step too far and diminishes resources for meaningful reform efforts already underway at the local level.”

Eric Lewis of the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Opportunities disagreed. “Sadly,” he said, “the court’s ruling represents a major loss, not only for the parents and their children, but for our community as a whole. When our children are denied a quality education, our entire community suffers.”

In an Associated Press story, Melinda Deslatte reported: “Tirany Howard, who has three children enrolled in a Baton Rouge private school through the voucher program, said she was disappointed by the judge’s ruling but was trying to remain hopeful that his decision will be overturned…. Howard said she couldn’t afford to send her children to Hosanna Christian Academy without assistance. Without the state covering tuition, she said her children would end up in a public school deemed failing by the state.”

The state’s high court is scheduled to hear the case March 19. Either way, its ruling will profoundly affect not only the lives of thousands Louisiana families, but also millions of other American children who could be rescued from failing schools if powerful school reforms continue to gain momentum across the land.

Sidebar:  Can Louisiana teachers’ unions stay relevant?

With the Louisiana legislature set to convene again in a few weeks, both of the teachers’ unions remain a potent force. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers’ PAC has 12,000 members; the Louisiana Association of Educators PAC, 15,500, according to documents filed with the Louisiana Board of Ethics.

The failed recall effort and the unions’ weakness (at least at the legislative level) in stopping education reform raise questions about the unions’ real level of support. Critics note that, of the state’s 50,000 teachers, some 7,000 belong to the non-union association, Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana. That’s a remarkable number for a counter-union group.

And last November, voters in all New Orleans-area parishes and East Baton Rouge Parish overwhelmingly supported a measure holding school board members to three consecutive terms. This means unions will have to vie for control of school boards every 12 years instead of maintaining control indefinitely.

But the real coup de grâce may come in the form of payroll protection. Opinion polls show that rank-and-file teachers do not support the union leadership’s liberal political agenda. Yet current Louisiana law allows public school officials to automatically deduct worker dues for political purposes. Two payroll protection bills that were introduced last year are expected to be re-introduced in April. One would prohibit “political uses of public payroll withholdings and deductions” from public employees’ paychecks, while the other would prevent organizations with a history of political activism from receiving funds from public employees. An LAE official called the bills “an attempt to shut down the voice of public employees totally.”

Sidebar:  The “wall of separation” concept vs. the First Amendment

Religion also plays a role in the debate over the Jindal reforms. When he ran for governor in 2007, Jindal, a Catholic convert from Hinduism, was attacked in Democratic Party ads as “anti-Protestant.” When, as governor, he proposed school vouchers that would enable students to attend parochial schools under certain circumstances, anti-Catholic sentiments were raised again, often couched in terms of “separation of church and state.”

Rachel Tabachnick, an anti-“Religious Right” blogger, wrote that voucher programs such as Jindal’s “drain tax dollars from public into private schools, including into religious schools with fundamentalist curricula.” Some opponents of traditional Christian beliefs complain that church schools participating in the program will teach skepticism or opposition to certain ideas, including the notion that the New Deal saved the country from the Great Depression, the belief that sexual orientation is set before birth, and theories related to evolutionary biology. The magazine of Americans United for Separation of Church and State complained that “Catholic schools are expected to be the main beneficiaries of the voucher program. Louisiana has a long tradition of Catholic education, although fundamentalist Protestant academies are popular in some areas.”

On the other hand, State Rep. Valarie Hodges (R-East Baton Rouge) came to regret her vote for the reforms because, she said, the Jindal program might end up funding Islamic schools. “I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” Hodges told the Livingston Parish News. “I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school.” She said she had “mistakenly assumed that ‘religious’ meant ‘Christian.’”

The idea of a “wall of separation between church and state” was initially invoked against anti-slavery preachers, and was used later to justify an anti-Catholic approach to the law—most famously by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in the 1947 Everson case. Justice Black, who had been a Kladd, a Ku Klux Klan initiation leader, knew well that the Klan oath pledged support for the “eternal separation of church and state.”

In contrast to the idea of a “wall,” the U.S. Constitution forbids Congress to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the Constitution requires government neutrality between religions, not a impenetrable barrier that would prohibit government aid to students who may or may not choose to attend religious schools. That is just what the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2002 when it ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that an Ohio voucher program could permit students to choose religious schools.

Dr. Steven J. Allen (JD, PhD) is editor of Labor Watch. This article originally appeared on the website “LaborWatch,” a project of the Capital Research Center, and is republished here with permission from the author.

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