The 2012 legislative session could well be remembered as a turning point for Gov. Bobby Jindal and for public education in Louisiana. The governor, who in prior years was loath to take on controversial issues, loaded his political plate this year with one of the most ambitious agendas we've ever seen. Jindal pushed for a top-to-bottom overhaul of K-12 public education, and lawmakers effectively rubber-stamped his proposals. Now that "education reform" is the law in Louisiana, it deserves close scrutiny — especially since Jindal and his legislative allies didn't give the public adequate time to examine his proposals during the legislative process.
As a candidate in 2007, Jindal promised to be bold yet practical. In his first term, we didn't see enough of either attribute. In our view, he was far too risk-averse and, in matters that might get him national attention at Louisiana's expense, way too ideological. In his first legislative session since winning re-election, the governor showed he's not afraid of controversy.
While it's far too early to assess Bobby Jindal's legacy as governor, it's no stretch to predict that his education reform package will rank among his major accomplishments. We disagree with some of the changes — particularly the lack of accountability relating to vouchers and the expansion of charter school authorizers. However, the overhaul of teacher tenure rules and the lines of authority between local school boards and education superintendents will have, in our opinion, lasting positive impact on public education in Louisiana. We also like the idea of making it easier for successful charter school operators to apply directly to the state for additional charters.
Controversy continues to follow the new law; the Louisiana Federation of Teachers last week filed a constitutional challenge. The union hopes to preserve current tenure laws and to strike down the voucher program (currently limited to Orleans Parish but soon to apply statewide), which critics rightly say takes money away from cash-strapped local school systems.
The governor dismisses the suit as the latest attempt by "the coalition of the status quo" to prevent meaningful education reform, but the time for rhetoric is past. The court challenge raises legitimate concerns not only with the substance of the bills but also with the manner in which they were rushed through the Legislature. We like many aspects of the governor's reform package, but just as many elements trouble us. The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR), which hardly qualifies as a defender of the status quo, likewise raises significant questions about several aspects of the governor's reforms.
"This bill is extraordinarily complex," PAR wrote in a post-session analysis (www.parlouisiana.org). "Although many people had discussed these types of programs long before the session, the details were not known until the bill was filed just before the legislative session started, leaving little time for the public to digest a large amount of new information. The dismay over this situation was compounded by the speed with which the measure was approved by the Legislature. The strategy seemed clearly designed to compress the time in which questions could be asked or opposition organized, and it was successful."
We agree. In rushing to pass "reform," lawmakers — at the governor's insistence — paid little attention to important details. That is no way to make important public policy. Now the courts must determine if lawmakers made a mess of it. And if any of the mess happens to pass constitutional muster, the public will have to live with the consequences.
For example, one private, faith-based school already wants to take 315 voucher students next year — even though the school does not have adequate classroom space or teachers to handle the extra enrollment, which would more than double. Moreover, the school plans to raise tuition to just under the maximum allowed in that parish, confirming fears that the "reforms" open the door to abuse — and favor Jindal's political allies in the evangelical community. The state Department of Education is supposed to monitor the qualifications of nonpublic schools participating in the voucher program, but school Superintendent John White, like many lawmakers, seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid on vouchers. That's too bad, because it's his job to pay attention to details and to put accountability measures in place.
All of which reminds us that "reform" is an overused word in Louisiana politics. Reform always means "change" — but it does not always mean "improvement." In the case of Jindal's education reforms, the changes represent several steps forward ... but a few in the wrong direction as well.