Education change will test Jindal

Special to the Herald-Guide
December 09, 2011 at 9:58 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

By John Maginnis
Bobby Jindal is not the first governor to make education a top priority. Few havenít. The dean of the Legislature, Sen. John Alario, says he has voted for "every education reform" past governors have come up with. "But all of that doesnít seem to have worked at this point," he lamented.

"So I think it is a matter of going in and breaking it all apart and seeing what we can do to make it work," concluded the man whom Jindal has tapped to be the next Senate president and so to handle the next attempt at education reform.

Frustrated as Alario may be after 40 years of dealing with education, "breaking it all apart" wonít be the words Jindal uses when he unveils his proposals for K-12 in January. For thatís what leaders of teacher unions, superintendents and school boards suspect heís trying to do and what they are gearing up to fight.

A showdown with the education establishment may be just what many of his social-conservative and business allies want, especially after their endorsed candidates nearly swept the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education elections. Yet spending more money to win BESE elections and translating that mandate into legislation are different enterprises.

Curiously for Jindal, improving public education is the issue on which he and President Barack Obama share the most common ground, but not as much with many Republican legislators and their constituents.

Many of his supporters in the cities donít have the personal stake in local public schools because they, or relatives and neighbors, donít send their children there. In suburbs and towns, where folks think their schools and teachers are pretty good, they are leery of having them fixed by importing whatís done in New Orleans--widespread charters, Teach for America, even limited vouchers.

The challenge for Jindal is t develop an agenda that offers real changes for real problems but that doesnít incite the teachers to go to war, especially over changes to tenure. Because teachers donít have collective bargaining in Louisiana, tenure is their primary source of job protection, and messing with it promises a fight. Given that your average lawmaker deathly fears having enraged teachers storming the Capitol or, worse, their district offices, Jindal allies already are talking about "tenure modification" rather than a big rollback.

Nothing will be gained from scorched earth. If the goal is to get a good teacher in every classroom, starting by getting the bad ones out, tenure is but a piece. Another large one starts moving into place this week when state education officials present for approval a new evaluation system for teachers, which is half based on progress students make on standardized tests. Starting in the next school year, one-third of the stateís 50,000 teachers will be so evaluated.

The plan is designed to remediate the bottom ten percentile over three years, with those failing to improve liable to be dismissed, and to reward the top ten percentile, perhaps with merit pay, which figures to be another controversial issue in the next Legislature.

The teacher organizations opposed the 2010 legislation that set up the evaluations and continue to criticize the implementation as rushed and flawed. Yet continuing to work with them is the prudent course for Jindal.

Given past governorsí struggles to make a difference in education, this one had to make a political calculation before wading in.

It may be that Jindal embraced public education as a priority for his second term because it already is moving in the right direction in the first one. Test scores and graduation rates gradually have gone up and the dropout rate has dropped. When schools were first assigned letter grades this year, 44 percent scored "D" or "F," which is awful but a one-fifth improvement over the 55 percent at that level had letter grades been used four years ago.

And grades matter to Bobby Jindal. For him to get an "A" for education, or even a passing mark, his reform agenda has to get through the Legislature--the easy part--but then it has to work. By late 2015, if the kids who started school when he first took office havenít shown solid improvement as eighth graders, he will be judged as less effective, regardless of other successes he would point to, like not raising taxes.

The old cliche is true that our childrenís future is in our hands. So too, for Jindal, is his in theirs.

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