If Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to do something bold in the arena of public education in his second term, now is the time to do it. The people are with him, even if they're not sure where he's headed. That's essentially the finding of the latest statewide survey by Baton Rouge polling firm Southern Media and Opinion Research (SMOR).
SMOR has polled Louisiana voters for decades and typically conducts surveys in advance of the annual legislative session. The latest SMOR survey was paid for by conservative businessman Lane Grigsby of Baton Rouge. Grigsby, a staunch GOP activist and financier, was a big player in the last round of state board of education elections. His money helped give Jindal the super-majority he needs to name the next state education superintendent.
Here's what the survey shows:
• 48.3 percent of Louisiana voters think the state is headed in the right direction; 35.1 percent feel we've "gotten off on the wrong track." Those are decent but not great numbers for Jindal, despite his "landslide" victory in October — when voter turnout was anemic.
• 38 percent think President Barack Obama is doing an excellent or good job; 61 percent rate his job performance as "not so good" or poor. Those numbers generally track the 2008 presidential election returns in Louisiana.
• 63.7 percent rate Jindal's job performance as excellent or good; 34.4 percent rate him as "not so good" or poor. Jindal's "negative" rating aligns closely with those who say the state is "off on the wrong track."
• 25.4 percent cited education as the main problem Jindal and lawmakers need to solve; 22.4 percent cited jobs; 10.7 percent said economic development.
Asked to give a letter grade to public education across Louisiana, only 20 percent gave it an A or B; 42.2 percent gave it a D or F. Voters were kinder to public education in their respective parishes: 36.9 percent gave it an A or B; 30.9 percent gave it a D or F.
Asked if they were satisfied with public education in their home parishes, 41 percent said they were "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied," but 53.3 percent said they were "somewhat dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied."
Numbers like these form a solid basis for reform efforts. However, those with a stake in the status quo in public education tend to speak loudly to lawmakers. Pushing "reforms" through the Legislature will not be easy, depending on how far Jindal tries to go.
Jindal has not yet released his proposed reforms — if he has even formulated them — but voters already line up behind him.
• 87.8 percent said teacher tenure should be renewed periodically based on performance rather than granted for life. If Jindal tries to modify tenure rules, it will be the toughest battle of the next legislative session. The voters are with him.
• 40.9 percent said there are "a lot" of underperforming teachers in public schools. Only 15.7 said there were "a few." While I don't doubt the accuracy of the survey, that doesn't mean voters are correct in their perceptions. But, in politics, perception is reality. If teacher groups need a game plan, it should start with changing these numbers.
• 66.7 percent said they support Jindal's efforts to reform K-12 public education, even though the question offered no specifics as to what those efforts might be. Only 19.2 percent oppose Jindal's efforts.
• 74.4 percent agree that half of a teacher's evaluation should be based on student progress; 20.2 percent disagree. The new evaluation formula was adopted recently by lawmakers — over the objections of teacher unions.
The battle lines are drawn. Win or lose, this fight could define Jindal's second term.