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Governor throws deep on education

Special to the Herald-Guide -   Jan 26, 2012

By John Maginnis
Unveiling his plan for revamping K-12 education last week, Gov. Jindal outlined dozens of proposals that go further and deeper than many thought he would or that any previous governorís reform plans have, spanning tenure, school choice, merit pay, salaries, seniority, pre-K and the hiring and firing powers of superintendents versus school boards. Itís a comprehensive plan, though short on details, that now needs to be crafted into a manageable package of bills for lawmakers to digest and debate.

His speech to the annual meeting of the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry was received more warmly in board rooms than in teachersí break rooms. The governor said he did not seek a war with teachers, but he peppered his speech with fighting words, like "surviving" and "breathing," to describe all it takes to earn tenure or pay raises these days. He could tone down the rhetoric, surely, but that wonít lessen the conflict ahead, particularly on the tenure issue, where there appears to be little middle ground between his position and the teachersí.

Teachersí representatives will argue that tenure is not the problem with education, but, given how little consideration has been given its near sacred-cow status over the years, it is a system that bears greater scrutiny and some modification. Jindalís plan would increase from three to five years the period before teachers become eligible for tenure, and they would need to be rated highly effective each year. Thatís quite a high bar, which the Legislature may lower, but itís moving in the right direction.

A teacher would lose tenure after being rated ineffective after only one year, leading to possible dismissal in two more years if the teacher, after remediation, remains ineffective. Teachers will call that unfair, but parents could say itís unfair for their children to have teachers incapable of reaching competency after three years.

Tenure may be the most personally acrimonious issue, especially when teachers back home start getting in legislatorsí faces. But, judging from editorial reaction, potentially the most explosive point advanced by the governor is a massive statewide expansion of education vouchers, or "opportunity scholarships," as re-coined by proponents. Whatever they are called, the issue will provoke the most heated debate and, on the scale proposed, could tear apart the coalition of progressive reformers and social conservatives that back Jindalís overall plan.

He proposes offering tuition vouchers for every child in a school graded C, D or F and in a family with an income under 250 percent of the federal poverty level, which comes to 380,000 of the public school enrollment of 705,000.

It is not going to pass in that form, and Jindal likely knows that, or should. Four years ago, the governor and his allies had to fight and scrap to set up a voucher program serving only 1,800 low-income students in New Orleansí worst schools, and they did not try to go further for the rest of the term. Now, to seek a 200-fold increase at once is more than even many Republican legislators are ready to go, regardless of the cost-shedding touted by the governor. But, by aiming high, he might get a bill that would apply to D and F schools only, 224,000 students, or even just F schools, 29,000, which would still be hard to pass but very worth debating.

Beyond the high-profile issues of tenure and choice lie proposals which could improve schools as much or more. The governorís efforts to grant more flexibility to superintendents and principals and less day-to-day management control to school boards sputtered in the last term, but have better prospects this year. Having school districts set their own salary schedules, instead of being fixed in state law, and letting them reward effective teachers with pay raises instead of treating all the same are decisions that should be made at the local level, whether local leaders want to make them or not.

All of the above and more are enough to keep this administration and Legislature fully engaged in this yearís session and thereafter. Whether legislators like the governorís plan or hate it, or some of both, this is how governments should approach big issues, and none is bigger than this.

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