by Lamar White, Jr. on February 5, 2012
A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal compared Governor Bobby Jindal’s plans for education reform to Newt Gingrich’s plans for a moon colony. And they weren’t being facetious or ironic. Quoting from their article “Jindal’s Education Moon Shot“:
Newt Gingrich wants the U.S. to return to the moon, but as challenges go he has nothing on Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s school reform plans.
Mr. Jindal wants to create America’s largest school voucher program, broadest parental choice system, and toughest teacher accountability regime—all in one legislative session. Any one of those would be a big win, but all three could make the state the first to effectively dismantle a public education monopoly.
In an attempt at praising Jindal’s “reform” efforts, The Wall Street Journal unwittingly reinforced something most rational people already understand: Like Gingrich’s pitch for a colony on the moon, Jindal’s plan for education is irrational, untested, grandiose, and absurd. But at least they got one thing right: While Jindal and company attempt to convince us that they’re merely proposing scholarships, the simple and obvious truth is that they are calling for “America’s largest school voucher program.” Let’s get this out of the way: Jindal’s voucher plan is comically infeasible and impractical. From The Times-Picayune:
Under Jindal’s plan, about 380,000 students would qualify to receive state aid for tuition at a private or religious school, (Senator) Landrieu pointed out.
But even if every private elementary school in the state could immediately grow its enrollment by 10 percent to accommodate an influx of voucher recipients, only about 8,000 seats would be available. Include private high schools and that figure rises to about 11,200.
Jindal, by the way, did not dispute these numbers. He didn’t dispute that his voucher plan cannot and will not work, that there is no possible way he could ever deliver on his promise. Instead, his spokesperson said that Senator Landrieu was “missing the point.” No, no, she’s not. She’s speaking precisely on point: Jindal cannot deliver right now.
Thus far, unfortunately, teacher unions and the superintendents are playing right into Jindal’s hands. The teacher unions are harping on teacher pay and benefits; the superintendents, who stand to gain even more discretionary powers, are distancing themselves as quickly as possible, hoping to appear as apolitical as possible. I wonder, though: Are any of these people aware of the end-game here? Because Jindal’s proposals about performance-based pay and tenure are just window-dressing. On their own, they’re radical, to be sure, but not nearly as radical as Jindal’s end-game. Ultimately, Jindal’s goal, as The Wall Street Journal notes, is not merely to create the country’s “largest voucher program;” it’s about using taxpayer dollars to establish an undemocratic, unprotected parallel education system.
Senator Landrieu points out that we simply don’t have enough private-school openings to accommodate even a fraction of the kids to whom Jindal plans to give vouchers. She’s right, and on its surface, this makes Jindal’s plan foolish. Except vouchers aren’t really the issue either. Surely, Jindal is smart enough to know his numbers simply don’t add up, that there is no possible way he could ever deliver vouchers to even 5% of the kids who qualify. It’s a sham. And it’s meant to be a sham. It’s meant to provide the Governor with the ability to establish a threshold of public dollars per student that Louisianans would be willing to contribute toward the development of a parallel charter and for-profit education system and infrastructure. And he’s aiming at $8,500 per student per year. Again, this is precisely why Mr. Jindal unveiled his program in front of the largest group of business lobbyists in the State of Louisiana; there is a ton of money to be made in privatizing public education.
Mr. Jindal’s proponents will likely point to the charter school model created in New Orleans after the storm. There are many good people doing exceptional things in charter schools and in the Recovery School District, but sorry, it’s absolutely absurd to attribute any marginal successes in New Orleans education to a business model. When charters fail and when charters go bankrupt, which is the case more often than proponents would have us believe, it can be abruptly catastrophic for students and their families. And because of the way most charters are structured, there is little to no accountability when they fail.
I, for one, am tired of Bobby Jindal “experimenting” with Louisiana. Despite the fact that his diploma is from one of the finest public high schools in the country, Baton Rouge Magnet, I don’t believe he is an advocate for public education. For months, my buddy Zack Kopplin, a fellow graduate of Baton Rouge Magnet, pestered the public and the media about the Louisiana Science Education Act (the LSEA). If you need any evidence that Mr. Jindal doesn’t care about the quality of public education, then all you need to do is look at the LSEA, a pernicious and likely unconstitutional piece of legislation that allows public schools to substitute science with religion, a piece of legislation that was brought to you and funded through the generous contributions of the radical religious right– groups like the Discovery Institute and the (in my opinion, shady) Louisiana Family Forum. Mr. Jindal, a Biology major from Brown, likely knows better; he was even criticized by his own college biology professor. But while Mr. Jindal doubled-down on the radical right and signed a bill undermining the integrity of science education in our public schools, Zack did something else: He received endorsements from over 71 Noble Prize laureates calling for a repeal of the law. You know how many Nobel laureates have endorsed Governor Jindal? None. Zero.
When he signed the LSEA, Governor Jindal wasn’t guided by any metrics of academic performance; he wasn’t concerned with preserving the integrity of the institution of public education. Mr. Jindal was merely playing politics. And so it is with his proposed overhaul of education.
The inconvenient truth, ironically, is that public schools in Louisiana have improved during the last few years. Our graduation rates have increased by nearly 6% since 2001; we’re closing the so-called “achievement gap;” test scores are up. There’s no reason to suddenly panic, and certainly, there’s no basis for attempting to completely overhaul the entire education system.
Louisiana, we don’t need to be, once again, turned into Bobby Jindal’s experimental laboratory. We tried that once before, when he was Secretary of the DHH, and it didn’t work out well at all.
Mr. Jindal, despite his impressive academic pedigree, is and has always been manifestly and vehemently opposed to a robust and successful public education system. Our charter schools in New Orleans may be performing better than comparable schools were before the storm, but, really, so what? Who is to say that our public schools wouldn’t have rebounded just as well, had they only been given the same resources, priorities, and treatment as our charters? We strip money from public education, give it to private and quasi-private charters, and then, we wonder about why charters are out-performing public schools. We’re being dangerously naive.
Louisiana is still at the bottom of many public education rankings, and without any doubt, there is a lot of work to be done. But think about this: Every single state that is ranked higher than Louisiana is working with the same toolkit. They’re not giving millions and millions of taxpayer dollars to build a parallel system of education more adept at maximizing private-sector profits (no, this is definitely Bobby Jindal’s “moon shot”); they’re beating Louisiana because they’re investing in themselves. We, on the other hand, are being led by a man who seems all too eager and willing to privatize the most important public institution in the United States of America- the right to an education.
If Bobby Jindal wants to reform public education in Louisiana, then he needs to go back to the drawing board. If he is serious, then he needs to begin talking with educators instead of business lobbyists and radical fundamentalists. If anyone should profit from public education, it should be the people who actually invest their own money, not those who use public dollars for the expressed purpose of dismantling public education.
And if not, Jindal will continue to moon all of us, as he flies toward America’s newest extraterrestrial colony, a slab of rock hurling around the earth, a place that appears in phases and adheres to its own cycles, a land called Gingrich.