While the national media has focused most of its attention on the school voucher program Gov. Bobby Jindal has implemented in Louisiana, it is just one small part of a larger set of reforms that could reverberate across state lines.
By empowering students, parents and local school officials with greater autonomy and decision-making authority, Gov. Jindal has put himself at odds with his state's education establishment, which has instigated a recall effort and a slew of lawsuits aimed at scuttling the reforms.
Under state law, the recall effort would need about 957,000 certified signatures pulled from the 2.87 million registered voters, according to the Louisiana secretary of state's office. Since Jindal was re-elected with 66 percent of the voter this past October, and maintains high approval ratings, it is fair to say the recall effort faces an uphill climb.
"It's going to be virtually impossible to get the number of signatures required for a recall," Brigitte Nieland, vice-president and communications director of the Education and Workforce Development Council for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), said. "I think this is dead in the water. It's really just a lot of posturing."
In addition to Jindal, the recall effort also targets House Speaker Chuck Kleckley and Reps. Greg Cromer, Ray Garofalo and Kevin Pearson, all Republicans, who backed the education reform package. Jason Doré, the state GOP executive director, is leading a freedom of information act request to see exactly how many signatures have been gathered.
"Recalling the individual lawmakers is a more realistic goal, but even here they are having trouble," Nieland said. "Education reform is moving ahead in Louisiana and it won't be stopped. The recall effort and the lawsuits come from a coalition that is part of the past."
Rick Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), is particularly keen on idea of shifting personnel decisions away from school boards to superintendents and principals. This change to school governance, which is now operative in Louisiana thanks to Gov. Jindal, is worth considering in other parts of the country, Hess suggested.
""The whole point of a school board is to provide direction and oversight," he said. "But what we see too often is a kind of intrusive micromanaging that does not fit anyone's idea of good government and good management. It means the boards are not doing their job well, and they are not allowing the superintendents and principals to do their jobs well either."
Gov. Jindal also signed off on legislation that enables voters to limit school board members to three consecutive four-year terms. Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), is not certain term limits will achieve the desired effect. He sees an advantage in having experienced school board members.
"Having an institutional memory on the school board can be important," he observed. "Each district faces unique challenges, each district has its history and there is something to be said for having people on the board who have the knowledge and experience."
Rep. Stephen Pugh, the Republican who sponsored the term limits bill, places greater weight on "fresh ideas" than he does on experience.
"When you look at where our state is ranked and my parish is ranked in terms of education, it's clear that we need a new approach," he said. "School board members exert influence over important policy matters like curriculum and we need fresh ideas. That's why I like the idea of term limits."
In 2011, Louisiana was ranked 48th out of all 50 states for K-12 student achievement. Statistics also show that one-third of the state's students are performing below grade level. Louisiana ranks last in the number of fourth graders who read proficiently and it also has the highest drop-out rate in the country.
In light of these disconcerting figures, Camille Conaway, a public policy researcher with Blueprint Louisiana, based in Baton Rouge, was supremely disappointed to see the teachers unions offer up legislation that would essentially restore the status quo. One bill would have reinstated permissive tenure policies, while the other would enable school boards to have the final say over personnel matters, she explained.
The union-backed proposal on school governance, for instance, would "re-establish a lengthy and bureaucratic process not only for teacher discharge but even for discipline matters," Conaway said. Rather than empowering local officials, the union plan "would remove personnel decision making from the superintendent and return Louisiana to a political process led by school board members, and restore tenure as we know it," she added.
Sen. Conrad Appel, who chairs the Louisiana Senate Education Committee, anticipates that the school choice initiatives now taking root Louisiana will serve as an impetus for similar efforts in other states. But he also cautions against the idea the school voucher system standing alone will have an immediate impact on a substantial number of students. He does anticipate that the program will grow over time."
"When you compare the voucher proposal with the legislation that could be used to open more charter schools, the modifications to teacher accountability, and the [re-defined] relationship between school boards, superintendents and principals we are talking about a gradual and incremental change," he said. "But I think the voucher concept is very valid, and it does create opportunities for families that would not otherwise have a choice."
Under the new legislation passed in May, any Louisiana student enrolled in a school with a C grade or lower is permitted to apply for a voucher. About 950 schools out of 1300 statewide fall in this category. (The letter grades applied to schools are based on student test scores. This new evaluation method, which became law in 2010, supplants an earlier system that used stars and labels to assess school performance. Gov. Jindal viewed the star and label approach as being a bit vague.)
School voucher applicants must also be part of a household with an income that does not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty rate, or $57,625 for a family of four. This means about 380,000 students out of 700,000 statewide were eligible to apply for the school year beginning this fall. The latest figures available through the Louisiana Department of Education show over 7,500 applications were submitted. Students will be selected on the basis of a lottery.
In addition to the 2,300 seats available to voucher students in New Orleans, where a pilot scholarship program has been up and running since 2008, state officials have estimated that about 5,000 seats could be available in the fall.
The same legislation also provides public universities and non-profit groups with the authority to approve new charter schools. Parents would also have the right to convert an F school into a charter school with a majority vote.
Although union officials have expressed skepticism toward the charter school effort, which is now concentrated in New Orleans, their opposition to Jindal is largely concentrated against the expanded voucher program and the new tenure rules.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of school vouchers in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which involved a pilot scholarship program in Ohio. The Court ruled that the program did not violate the First Amendment's establishment of religion clause. But there other legal angles open to voucher opponents on the state level.
In June, the Louisiana School Boards Association joined with the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) to file legal challenges against the funding formula used to support the statewide voucher program. The suits claim the Louisiana Constitution precludes funds allocated for public schools from being spent on private institutions. In response, the legal team representing the governor points out the Louisiana Constitution merely stipulates that the state funding be used to benefit public school students, not the school districts per se. Therefore, it is permissible for public school dollars to "follow the child," they argue.
The LFT has filed a separate suit challenging the reforms Gov. Jindal made to teacher tenure. Under the new policy, teachers rated as "ineffective" after one year would lose tenure, while new teachers would not obtain tenure unless they receive high performance marks over a five year period. Jindal has also interlinked tenure with a new "value-added assessment" that includes student test scores as part of teacher evaluations. Under the previous policy, teachers automatically received tenure after three years.
Earlier this summer, District Judge Tim Kelley in Baton Rouge denied a union petition to issue an injunction that would have prevented the voucher program going forward this August.
But now, the Louisiana Association of Educators is applying legal pressure against the individual schools that are accepting voucher students. School choice proponents from across the country describe the move as "unprecedented."
One letter from LAE to a Catholic school is online here.
Superintendent John White and Penny Dastugue, who chairs the state board of education, have issued a joint statement today condemning the threats. Several school choice advocacy groups have also weighed in, including the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the American Federation for Children, and the Pelican Institute.
Given how tenacious and effective he has been in the battle for school choice, it's not surprising that Gov. Jindal was viewed as a potential vice-presidential candidate prior the section of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. If the Republican ticket prevails in November, Jindal would most certainly be in the running for a cabinet position, Chuck Dunn, a distinguished professor of government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, suggested.
"Jindal combines southern roots with intellectual brilliance and significant public policy achievements," Dunn said.
Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, concurs.
Gov. Jindal has forced the teachers unions into a position where they must play defense, he said.
"What it [the voucher program] does is it alters the marketplace for the delivery education, and eradicates boundaries, so that where a person lives does not limit their ability to make educational choices," Enlow explained. "What it also means is that systems are becoming secondary to students. The focus now is on what kids need."
At a time when the Catholic Church is already antagonized by health care mandates that intrude upon its core convictions, the legal threats aimed against the voucher schools in Louisiana, which are mostly Catholic, could make for an engaging narrative in the fall campaign.