LSU President F. King Alexander made some bold statements recently about the impact on higher education of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed budget. Alexander’s warnings are so dire some might call them shrill, which is exactly what Jindal and his few remaining supporters would like everyone to believe. Unfortunately, King is not overreacting. The numbers and the political realities back him up.
Alexander told reporters in several media markets this past week that Jindal’s answer to the state’s looming $1.6 billion budget shortfall contains reductions for LSU that are “so large we’d have to furlough everybody for the entire year.”
Alexander and several members of the Jindal-appointed LSU Board of Supervisors recently met with the governor to discuss the situation, to no apparent avail. Instead, several of the supervisors expressed vague confidence that somehow Jindal and lawmakers would find a way to muddle through. King responded that, yes, there’s always “divine intervention.”
Meanwhile, the earthly realities don’t bode well for higher ed. Here’s why:
Jindal’s proposed budget would reduce state funding to every public college and university in Louisiana by more than 80 percent — on top of the draconian cuts he has implemented over the past seven years. That’s not a misprint. The governor proposes to slash the current pathetic level of direct state support for higher ed by more than 80 percent. Those numbers don’t come from Alexander; they come from the Legislative Fiscal Office, which is nonpartisan.
Four years ago, the Jefferson Parish Public School System was in shambles. The previous school board had run up a $30 million deficit, nearly two-thirds of parish public schools were rated “D” or “F,” and the system overall scored a “D” — making it one of the worst in the state.
Today, some of Jefferson’s public schools rank among the best in the state. The $30 million deficit became a surplus large enough to give teachers a pay raise, Jefferson schools overall scored a “B” in the latest rankings, and the system is on track to become a national model for educational turnarounds.
It started with Jefferson Parish voters’ decision in 2010 to elect five reform-minded school board members — barely enough for a majority of the nine-member board. In 2011, the new board hired Jim Meza as schools superintendent — and let him do his job without political interference. Those decisions changed the landscape.
When the new board took office in 2011, fewer than 5,700 Jefferson Parish public school students attended schools rated “A” or “B.” Today, more than 22,400 students attend “A” or “B” schools in Jefferson — more than in any other parish in Louisiana.
Improvement on the lower end of the scale has been equally dramatic. In 2011, more than 32,000 students in Jefferson attended “D” or “F” rated schools. Today, fewer than 9,000 attend such schools. That’s still too many, but the trend is very positive.
Other statistics from the recent statewide rankings tell a similar story:
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s politically motivated attacks against the Common Core educational standards have become so heavy handed that even some of his traditional allies are calling him out. Until recently, Jindal ranked among the leading supporters of Common Core.
The governor changed his position after the state’s rollout of Common Core last year. Many students, teachers and parents complained that the new curricula were confusing, even controversial. That led to a groundswell on the far right, which was all it took to get Jindal to switch sides.
Anti-Common Core forces were all set to wage war on the initiative during the spring legislative session, but Jindal was a no-show each time a bill to weaken or kill the program came up. (That spoke volumes about the sincerity of Jindal’s newfound opposition.) After the session ended, he tried to gut the initiative administratively — and unilaterally — by going after the standardized test that is part of the Common Core program.
The governor claimed the state Board of Elementary and Second Education (BESE), which is constitutionally empowered to set education policy, failed to follow proper procurement procedures in buying the so-called PARCC test. That test was set to be used this academic year, which begins in a few weeks. With great fanfare, Jindal issued an executive order instructing his underlings not to pay for the test, arguing it was purchased illegally. That created a constitutional standoff with BESE — and threw Louisiana public education into disarray on the eve of the coming school year.
Jindal met last week with state Education Superintendent John White to discuss the impasse, to no avail. White, like most BESE members, supports Common Core. After the meeting, the governor’s top aide told reporters that Jindal’s main concern is Louisiana’s “history of public corruption” — a thinly veiled accusation that BESE and White broke the law in buying the PARCC test.
That caused even some of Jindal’s allies to gag.
I’ve been trying for some time to find an appropriate metaphor to capture the shallowness of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s political narrative. I’ve settled on the image of him as an ancient puppet master conducting a shadow play.
Shadow plays were a popular form of entertainment and storytelling in primitive cultures. Things were kept simple — often a single puppet master would manipulate two-dimensional cutout characters to cast shadows on a scrim — so that the masses could easily comprehend the artless tale.
From his flimsy ethics reform “gold standard” in 2008 to his deceitful annual budgets built on one-time revenues, from his emasculation of higher education funding to his (federally rejected) plan to privatize Louisiana’s public hospitals, from his refusal to expand Medicaid to his recent flip-flop on Common Core — Jindal’s major policies consistently lack depth and substance. They are mere shadows on a wall.
But they make for good political theater, particularly among his easily beguiled followers.
Recognizing Jindal’s shadow plays for what they are requires people to stop suspending disbelief, to turn away from the scrim and look coldly at the guy manipulating shadows and light — and at the rest of the political landscape, which grows uglier by the day.
Ah, there’s the rub. The whole point of a shadow play, or any other play, is for people to escape life’s complications and just be entertained. That’s as true in politics as it is in life, and so Jindal keeps giving us shadow plays instead of reality. He knows what his public wants.
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