On Monday, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal released a 42-page document sketching his vision for education reform. The treatise is titled “K-12 Education Reform: A Roadmap,” and its broad strokes can be read as an obligatory piece of Jindal’s nascent presidential bid. It treads familiar ground in celebrating school choice, denouncing the Common Core, calling for a much-reduced federal role, arguing for the end of teacher tenure and mandatory union membership, and making the case for eliminating meddlesome regulations; but it’s more interesting and revealing than that list would suggest. Jindal’s roadmap is impressive for its ambition, breadth, and depth, and deserves special attention because of Jindal’s accomplishments in Louisiana.
The roadmap notes that over 90 percent of New Orleans public-school students now attend charter schools, and that achievement in these schools is up dramatically from the old pre-Katrina system. More than 7,000 students use the state’s scholarship (i.e., voucher) program to attend the schools of their choice, and parent satisfaction with the program is over 90 percent. He has enacted pioneering “course choice” legislation, which extends the logic of school choice by allowing families who generally like their child’s school to have the child take, for instance, a single math class or language course from an alternative provider.
The roadmap is especially interesting in four specific ways.
First, it diagnoses the challenge for K-12 schooling primarily as one of unequal opportunity: “In America today, we do not provide equal opportunity in education. This is an indisputable point, even an inconvenient truth.” This is a forceful and fair critique, but it can yield an agenda narrowly focused on addressing awful schools and on providing alternatives to families stuck in those schools. Reform has suffered for that myopia. A robust reform agenda needs to aim for more. It needs to do better by all children — those in poverty as well as their more fortunate peers. The rhetoric of educational inequality contains much truth, but it can too easily lead to few improvements for frustrated middle-class families.
Second, it displays an admirable appreciation for the value of deregulation. It spells out the need to lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools, reduce the complicated federal funding formulas that hamper local school systems, eliminate duplicative federal programs, and give educators more control over the operation of schools. It flags the need to cut back on the regulations that stymie private schools, such as state accreditation mandates for private-school teachers. This deregulatory impulse is a happy and sophisticated complement to the calls for school choice. Jindal seems to recognize that a rich and dynamic array of schools is not just about choice, but also about making it easier for district, charter, and private schools to address student needs.
Third — unsurprisingly, given Jindal’s fierce criticism of the Common Core — the document calls for the repeal of those standards and for ensuring that states and localities are adopting standards without interference from Washington. Fair-minded observers hold differing views about the value of the Common Core and the manner in which it has been adopted. Those views will get a full airing as GOP contenders jockey for position this year, and Jindal has made clear that he’s likely to be the field’s most vociferous critic of the Common Core.
Finally, Jindal spells out big ideas on civic education, teacher quality, and much else. At the same time, he articulates a healthy desire to rein in the federal government. What’s left unsaid in the roadmap is how he thinks the president should reconcile these competing impulses. For instance, Jindal calls for raising the academic requirements for teachers, evaluating teacher preparation, and promoting civic education. At the same time, he wants to “protect schools from federal meddling” and shrink the federal role. In theory, it’s entirely possible to reduce the federal footprint while using the bully pulpit to promote these reforms. However, when push comes to shove, Jindal — or any GOP candidate — will need to explain how one can critique American schooling as “a series of interlocking, coercive monopolies” and then insist on a minimalist federal role in solving the problem.
Would-be presidents need to approach education reform as a pivotal plank in an opportunity agenda, but they’ll have to do it with an eye to what role they think a president should actually play in solving these problems. In the shadow of the Obama administration, which has employed all manner of machinations to expand its footprint in the nation’s preschools, schools, and colleges, clarity on that score is more important than ever.
— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.