It was a simple matter to label Gov. Bobby Jindal's education reform package this session as a Republican effort, especially since it's the party of the governor and the lawmakers who handled his legislation. However, some Republicans voted against Jindal's education plan, and some Democrats stood with him.
The defecting Dems may stand out more than their counterparts, especially since teacher unions, long a force in Louisiana Democratic politics, worked hard against the bills. Jindal clearly had the upper hand, however, and he signed his plan into law two weeks ago.
The new laws make it more difficult for teachers to obtain and keep tenure; they increase the amount of taxpayer-funded vouchers that can be used to send public school students to private schools; they create new opportunities for charter schools to open; and they significantly expand the pool of "authorizers" who can approve charter school applications. Jindal's bills also establish new evaluation criteria for teachers based on performance, direct more money to early childhood education and give superintendents more authority.
Some Democrats have spent the last few weeks reaching out to constituents to justify their votes in favor of the reform bills. Their votes could become a sticky issue come re-election time in 2015.
Freshman Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, has been meeting with civic groups, making phone calls to constituents and taking his case to reporters in his district. "I don't think the governor's reform bills are going to outright fix education. I think we're probably going to have to address some of these items again in a few years," Brown said. "But this gets the discussion on education reform moving."
Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, who previously served 11 years in the House, has taken more of a direct approach with a lengthy prepared statement that has been published on his Facebook account and elsewhere. "[The new laws] are not perfect and we will have to go back and make adjustments," Smith said. "I have not bought into the governor's national agenda but I do believe after hearing from many, many constituents and other citizens around the state that we have to make some aggressive changes in education."
Both men — and they're not alone — have taken care to add qualifiers to their votes on vouchers and tenure. Both also hold vice chairman posts, as do many of the other Democrats who found themselves siding with Jindal on education reform issues this session.
Other Democrats have more political freedom (read: they're not committee chairs or vice chairs) and are offering up alternatives to Jindal's plans. Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee passed such a bill; it would give fractional rebates to taxpayers who donate to public schools.
House Bill 1106 by Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, comes with a $10 million statewide cap. It encourages residents to donate money to public schools for tutorials, curriculum, books, technology, Saturday school and other needs. As provisionally amended, the bill provides for a 25 percent tax rebate for donations to a "C-rated" school, a 50 percent tax rebate for donations to a "D" school, and a 75 percent tax rebate for donations to an "F" school.
Meanwhile, Jindal and his allies are pushing a bill to give 95 percent rebates to donors who give to private school scholarship funds. The private school funds have to benefit kids who transfer from poor-performing public schools. The Jindal rebate bill has no statewide cap.
While Jindal's office says he is open to the "intent" of Jackson's bill, budget leaders have been quick to note that its costs will have to be included in the budget for the next fiscal year — which is already out of whack. The Revenue Estimating Conference last week concluded that Jindal's proposed budget has an additional $303 million shortfall, on top of the governor's already skewed numbers.
Jindal's bad math notwithstanding, he remains in control of the legislative process. Meanwhile, his adversaries are planning court challenges. The education reform debate is far from over.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.