With the passage of his two education reform bills last week, Gov. Bobby Jindal essentially got everything he wanted in his push to overhaul Louisiana's primary and secondary public education system. The governor and his allies rewrote the rules for teacher tenure, made student performance the lynchpin of teacher evaluation programs, gave superintendents more authority to hire and fire personnel, made it easier to establish charter schools and vastly expanded the fledgling voucher program in New Orleans. Such sweeping changes were bound to bring the governor praise as well as criticism. Some measure of each is warranted, in our view.
As a starting point, Jindal deserves credit for taking on a Herculean task. No one can defend Louisiana's public education record. Unfortunately, the governor placed a disproportionate share of the blame on classroom teachers. In doing so, he picked a convenient political target. The teachers union is a powerful force in Louisiana, but teacher tenure was ripe for change. Most voters believe teachers should be held accountable for student achievement and that tenure should not be granted or retained automatically. In that respect, making it more difficult for teachers to earn — and keep — tenure makes some sense, as does tying teacher evaluations to student performance. We note that student performance will constitute only part of a teacher's evaluation under the Jindal plan. Ultimately, evaluations must reflect standards that are reasonable — and achievable — and teachers should be empowered, not scapegoated.
Critics of Jindal's plan correctly note that the teacher evaluation changes were adopted hurriedly and contain vague parameters. Thus, the success of Jindal's reforms will depend on the integrity of those who implement them. Just as there have been abuses in the current system, there is potential for abuse under the new rules.
Giving school superintendents more authority ranks among the better ideas in Jindal's plan. Elected school board members too often meddle in the day-to-day affairs of public school systems. The governor's plan gives school superintendents the authority and independence they need to hire and fire principals and teachers — and to adjust salary scales when needed to attract good teachers. Board members now must focus on education policy and fiscal integrity, leaving superintendents to function as CEOs.
The governor's plan also expands the role of charter schools, which have been a cornerstone of the education reform movement in New Orleans. Many — but by no means all — local charter schools have produced higher student test scores and have proved popular among public school parents. But charters are not a silver bullet. While we have seen tremendous progress at many charter schools, we also have seen some disasters.
Outside of New Orleans, opening a charter school in Louisiana has been unnecessarily difficult. Prospective charter operators have had to seek approval first from local school boards, which tend to view charters as competitors rather than partners. Jindal's plan allows charters with a proven track record to apply directly to the charter-friendly Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) to open new schools. We like that part of the plan, but we worry that Jindal's plan also allows BESE to significantly increase the number of charter "authorizers" in Louisiana — potentially opening the floodgates to new charters and thereby lowering standards. While the governor's plan places high financial standards on new authorizers, many fear that the Louisiana Family Forum, a bastion of religious fundamentalism and a proponent of teaching creationism, will become an authorizer of publicly funded Bible schools. At a minimum, this part of the plan bears close scrutiny as it is implemented.
Last but by no means least in terms of controversy, the governor's plan expands the New Orleans-based voucher program that he pushed through in 2008. While hundreds of thousands of students theoretically will be eligible under the new plan, as a practical matter only a few thousand actually may get to use public funds to attend participating private schools. Our main concerns are the lack of sufficient accountability provisions at participating private schools and the fact that this change will, indirectly at least, redirect locally generated public school funds to private schools. The new law directs the state Department of Education to write accountability provisions for participating private schools, but the law sets no standards.
At the end of the day, a shakeout of Louisiana's public education system was long overdue. But passing "reform" legislation alone will not automatically make things better — as we saw with Jindal's "gold standard" of ethics reform in 2008. The real fight is just beginning. We must all pay close attention to how the changes are implemented..