Earlier this month, after a bipartisan majority passed two new education bills in the Louisiana state house, teachers took the day off from work to protest in concert with activists, including the rather obscure Occupy Baton Rouge. In Cajun tradition, they held a raucous “funeral for education reform.” But on the contrary, Louisiana’s school reforms represent a new national birth of freedom for education. This is a huge step forward for conservative policy, especially with the establishment of unprecedented access to school choice.
As Jim Geraghty wrote in National Review last fall, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has enjoyed a spectacular run of success at governing his state, overhauling Louisiana, once derided as America’s “banana republic,” by cutting down corruption, improving business-friendliness, and reforming the health-care system. In fact, Jindal’s efforts were so successful that the Democratic party essentially didn’t bother putting forth a challenger in 2010; Louisiana had gotten so bad that dramatically reducing spending and cracking down on ethics violations didn’t anger the body politic at all. But then, of course, there were still public schools: With sacrosanct spending levels, lifetime tenure, and no accountability measures, they are the Louisiana-like rump in every state, holding back student achievement.
Thus, the Oxford-educated governor has now turned his attention to education reform. Unlike his other common-sense reforms, these have encountered vehement opposition — not from the populace at large, but from teachers’ unions.
Jindal’s reforms are smart, comprehensive, and innovative, representing the best of conservative thought on education. Rick Hess, director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, has high praise for the reforms, calling them “both politically savvy and good public policy,” and important both “as an individual event, and part of a trend.” That is, Jindal’s reforms represent a victory for conservative education-reform policies, and represent the growing tide of support for such ideas. The measures are broken down into two bills, and have two major components: significantly increasing school choice, and increasing accountability.
As Hess puts it, Louisiana’s new policies “establish a new standard for school choice, breaking ground for other states across the country.” Jindal has pushed for a huge expansion of voucher programs, which pay tuition for students at parochial or private schools. The state program itself is based on a successful system in Orleans Parish. Four hundred thousand students, almost half of Louisiana’s public-school population, would be eligible for a voucher to pay tuition at a private school (that’s the number of students who are eligible because they attend schools that receive C, D, or F grades from the state).
Jindal’s efforts will also increase support for charter schools. One of the greater controversies of education reform is whether or not school choice, by sending students to private schools or charter schools that lack standards, actually increases achievement. Choice in education is, of course, an intrinsically good thing, but it is a legitimate criticism, and advocates for charter schools have often found themselves overselling their promise in order to justify the concept. At the request of Democratic legislators, Louisiana’s reforms will now allow for deeper assessments of the charter and private schools supported by the state — a solid step forward, but one that only became possible once the battle for school choice had been won.
The other major element of Jindal’s reforms applies to public schools, establishing greater incentives and accountability for teachers. The plan would completely scrap the current teacher-salary matrix, replacing it with a more merit- and accountability-based system, though, as a concession, salary decreases will be blocked.
But more importantly, teacher tenure will be reformed and superintendents and principals will be given more decision-making discretion, empowering administrators at the expense of school boards. As it stands, Louisiana’s teachers, like most unionized teachers, have an ironclad tenure system: After just three years of their contract being renewed by their school district, teachers are made almost entirely immune from firing. There is no plausible justification for any teacher tenure at all; the policy is just the seigniorage teachers’ unions have extracted with the strength of collective bargaining combined with affection for public education. But eliminating it entirely is politically impracticable and debatably unfair. Louisiana’s laws currently grant tenure after just three years; now, teachers will have to earn “highly effective” ratings five out of six years in order to get it.
Of course, Jindal’s reforms aren’t perfect: They’ve been weakened in important spots by legislative compromises, but they could also possibly go too far in certain respects. The important point, Hess argues, is that “we need to try not to be defensive about [reform]. The Bush folks had serious problems with that, pretending their reforms were like Ivory Soap, 99 percent pure.” But Louisiana’s new laws are a major breakthrough for education reform, one that will empower other governors and administrators to follow in kind.
In response to the success of Jindal’s reforms, teachers’ unions have resorted to their new favorite nuclear option: filing a recall petition. Putting a Louisiana recall on the ballot requires the signatures of one-third of registered voters, making it about as likely as an alcohol citation being filed on Bourbon Street. But, as in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, where unions have seized on his education policies as justification for a recall, Jindal’s opponents are desperate for any way to maintain the levee holding back a tide of competition and reform.
— Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.