Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has outlined long-promised education proposals, including the largest voucher program in the nation, altering teacher tenure and pay, a Parent Trigger, and giving principals authority to hire, evaluate, and fire.
Enacting his proposals would make approximately 400,000 students eligible for state vouchers.
"The way forward is to provide more choices to families, reward teachers, and give school leaders more flexibility with funding and personnel," Jindal, a Republican, said in announcing his proposals. “Our kids only grow up once, and we cannot wait for the system to reform itself."
The governor stressed  three "pillars" of education: effective teachers, equal opportunity for families, and school flexibility.
He pointed to Louisiana's low ranking on myriad measures of academic performance in calling for "faster" change. Louisiana students score in the bottom five states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in every grade and subject tested.
“You have to wait until actual bills have been written and filed, but I think it’s fair to describe it as an ambitious education reform agenda,” said Kevin Kane, president of the New Orleans-based Pelican Institute for Public Policy.
A school voucher program currently benefits low-income New Orleans families. Jindal would expand it to every child attending a school rated C or lower by the state whose family is at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty line ($55,875 per year or less for a family of four). That's more than half of Louisiana’s nearly 700,000 K-12 students.
"The current system is unacceptable and unfair," Jindal said. “Parents and kids should not be trapped in a failing school because of their ZIP code, income, gender, or color."
Jindal’s plan would also allow students to take classes from varied providers, including virtual schools, colleges and universities, and businesses with training programs. He'd give high school students who graduate early half of their per-pupil state spending as a college scholarship. He would also extend charter school authorization authority to approved nonprofits, universities, and community organizations.
Attracting, Retaining Teachers
“Our system today often crushes talented teachers, and it makes their jobs harder, not easier,” Jindal said. “If any actual business was set up like this, they would go under in a matter of months. That’s about to happen to our education system."
To address these problems, Jindal proposes several changes, including: removing teacher salary schedules, ending "last in, first out" policies, moving teachers rated ineffective from tenured to probationary, and tying teacher certification to effectiveness. New teachers would receive tenure only after five years of a "highly effective" rating.
“The status quo is going to say my plan hurts teachers and hurts public education," Jindal said. "They are going to do whatever it takes to say reform is a bad idea. That type of rhetoric is insulting to the people across this state demanding better schools. Teaching is not only one of the most important professions in the world; it’s also one of the toughest professions. That’s why we want to reward teachers."
Legislative Debates Ahead
Effective reform requires two components, Kane said: Removing obstacles to school success, and giving parents more options for their children to attend a better-fitting school.
He said Jindal’s ideas will have strong support in Louisiana’s legislature, given its “appetite for reform” and a weaker array of opponents such as teachers unions. Jindal’s landslide 2011 reelection with 65 percent of the vote gives his priorities heft, with Republican majorities in both statehouses.
He cautioned, however, “Any time you’re talking about changing things, that means there are entrenched interests to oppose that change, and there’s hard work involved.”
Should such an expansive voucher program become reality, Louisiana’s strong history of Catholic parochial schools and their recent enrollment decline means private schools are relatively well-positioned to absorb more students, Kane said.
“Jindal is pretty careful. He has put a lot of time and effort into this, and he’s got a lot of smart people working with him,” Kane said. “This has been a carefully thought-out process. It’ll certainly make the next few months pretty interesting."
Image by Gage Skidmore .