Big News in the Bayou State

Passing a set of historic reform bills last week, the Louisiana legislature handed Gov. Bobby Jindal and his new education chief, John White, the keys to reform city. By a healthy majority in both houses, it passed legislation, writes Bill Barrow of the Times-Picayune, which will

…curtail teacher tenure protection, tie instructors’ compensation and superintendents’ job security to student performance; shift hiring and firing power from school boards to superintendents; create new paths to open charter schools; and establish a statewide program that uses the public-school financing formula to pay private-school tuition for certain low-income students.

It was anything but a cakewalk for the Jindal reform package, as teachers descended on the Capitol to fight the bills and Democrats charged the second-term Republican governor with strong-arm tactics reminiscent of former political tough guys Huey Long and Edwin Edwards. “I make no apologies for having a sense of urgency,” said Jindal. “I was elected to help lead our state. I was not elected just to hold an office.”

Even Diane Ravitch made a trip to Louisiana to cheer-lead the anti-reform troops. As she recounts on her Bridging Differences blog, headlined “Bobby Jindal v. Public Education,” the Louisiana governor is…

….in a race to the bottom with other Republican governors to see who can move fastest to destroy the underpinnings of public education and to instill fear in the hearts of teachers. It’s hard to say which of them is worst: Jindal, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio, or …. There are so many contenders for the title, it’s hard to name them all. They all seem to be working from the same playbook: Remove any professionalism and sense of security from teachers; expand privatization as rapidly as possible, through charters and vouchers; intensify reliance on high-stakes tests to evaluate teachers and schools; tighten the regulations on public schools while deregulating the privately managed charter schools. Keep up the attack on many fronts, to confuse the supporters of public education.

Thankfully, an increasing number of parents and voters are not fooled by the rhetoric. And, tellingly, Ravitch leaves off the list of bad guy governors Andrew Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, who has proven himself a champion of education reform. Though there have been many fits-and-starts in the reform movement over the last decade, despite Ravitch’s attempt to portray it as a right-wing conspiracy, one of the more noticeable themes has been that movement’s bipartisanship.  Love it or hate it, No Child Left Behind was a bold cross-the-aisle reform hug and there has been a long line of Democratic education reformers, from Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson and Chicago mayor Richard Daley, to Democrats for Education Reform to Chris Cerf, the New Jersey education chief who worked in the Clinton administration, to President Obama and Arne Duncan. Adding Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to the list and, as Lyndsey Layton reported last month in the Washington Post, you have “several Democratic mayors in cities across the country—Chicago, Cleveland, Newark and Boston, among them—who are challenging teachers unions in ways that seemed inconceivable just a decade ago.

There is much to work out on the implementation front in Louisiana (and the AP is reporting many battles to come over vouchers), but Jindal’s new superintendent, a Teach for America veteran who cut his reform teeth under Joel Klein in New York (see my story on White here), is well-prepped for the challenge.

Says White,

This is a momentous day for the families of Louisiana…. All students deserve a fair chance in life, and that begins with the opportunity to attend a high-quality school. These policy changes are aligned with that central belief, and Gov. Jindal and state lawmakers have demonstrated a clear commitment to prioritize the educational rights of Louisiana’s next generation above all else.
Congratulations to Louisiana.

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

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