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Jindalís education plan has room for improvement

Special to the Herald-Guide -   Mar 22, 2012

By John Maginnis

As he went around the state promoting his education agenda, Gov. Bobby Jindal would recall, as a schoolboy, bringing report cards home to his father. The young scholar might have been satisfied with an "A" grade, but invariably his father would be disappointed that it was not an "A+." There was always room for improvement.

Father still knows best. In his package of bills moving briskly through the Legislature, Jindal proposes sweeping changes in K-12 education that, for the most part, are for the better, despite that schoolteachers and their union representatives disagree. Obedient Republican legislators likely will not be as critical and demanding as was Amar Jindal, but if they and the governor would take the time to thoughtfully review the plan, they could fix some defects and make it stronger.

That is not enough for the public education lobby and leading Democrats, who, on the school choice bill, for instance, point to the fatal constitutional flaw of using public tax dollars for private education. Courts will have to settle that matter, because the Democrats may not have the votes to stop the bills from becoming laws.

But they and Republicans too could address some vexing details that otherwise will bedevil future implementation, particularly of the publicly paid scholarship, or voucher, program.

Some important questions have been raised by the Public Affairs Research Council, which, back in 1999, first recommended a voucher plan for low-income students to escape failing schools. While supporting the principle in the school choice bill, PAR points to glaring weaknesses in accountability, both for private schools and scholarship students.

The bill would require that scholarship students take the same standardized tests as students in public schools. But there are no consequences for schools whose scholarship students consistently perform below grade level. And unlike for public school students who fail the LEAP test in the eighth grade, nothing in the proposed law would stop a private school from advancing the underperforming voucher student to the ninth grade. In PARís view, that leaves the potential for publicly funded social promotions. Not exactly reform.

The same goes for a separate bill that would grant tax rebates for contributions to non-profit organizations that provide public school students with scholarships to private schools.

Jindal would argue, as he has in rejecting assigning letter grades for participating private schools, that parents know whatís best for their childrenís education. But parents arenít the only ones with skin in that game. We the taxpayers have a vested interest in knowing the quality of schools--public and private--receiving our money, and in stopping it from being wasted.

Then there is the nagging question of how many public schools would be covered in the scholarship plan. The bill would open the program to income-eligible students in schools rated C, D or F--380,000 children in all. The governorís team estimates that only about 2,000 private school slots will be open to voucher students. With so few students to be served, why not limit eligibility to those who need it most, the ones in D and F schools?

The governor has said that he is open to amendments, and committee changes did improve the bills some. One amendment removed public funding for home-schooled students taking state-approved on-line courses. Another change deletes exemptions to the rule that limits private schools to 20 percent of enrolled students on state scholarships for the schoolsí first two years in the program.

These changes came in one lengthy amendment from the billís supporters. But more adjustments, especially on school and student accountability, would have improved this overall worthy legislation, had the governorís allies taken more time in committee. But the speed at which the bill is moving suggests there is more in it to hide.

Jindal could draw a lesson from his much-ballyhooed re-do of ethics laws in 2008, which he finally consented to revisit this year in order to untangle its unwieldy, unworkable enforcement piece. Better to fix faults beforehand than to have to repair the damage later.

If these bills are to form Bobby Jindalís education legacy, he should not let it be said that he could have done much better or that, in some cases, he made things worse.

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