I have written before that "reform" does not always mean "better." Sometimes it only means "different." I repeat that observation now as I watch Gov. Bobby Jindal's public education reform bills racing through the Legislature post-haste — at the governor's behest.
The breakneck speed at which Jindal wants lawmakers to pass his education package is no accident, but it comes with great risks. When "reforms" are passed in a hurry, the chances that things might actually get worse increase exponentially. At a minimum, doing things in a hurry makes it much more likely that a "reform" will solve one problem but create several more.
If this sounds like I'm part of what Jindal calls "the coalition of the status quo," perish the thought. I'm a huge supporter of charter schools. Done right, I think they can be game changers for kids who deserve a chance to succeed. Which is exactly why I'm concerned about the charter school provisions of Jindal's reform package. I'm worried he's going to cheapen the brand as a consequence of his mad dash to pass something quickly.
Consider how he has orchestrated things thus far.
Jindal waited until almost the very last minute to unveil the specifics of his education reform package. He spoke for months in glittering generalities, touting "choice" and "opportunity" and similar vague notions with which few could quarrel. Then, after keeping his bills under wraps for so long, he pushed them through House and Senate committees — and through the House itself — in the first 11 days of the session.
Fortunately, enough House members expressed concerns about some provisions in Jindal's "choice" bill (House Bill 974) that he was forced to make some concessions on the House floor. Most of them concerned the bill's voucher provisions, which the amendments significantly improved.
But the bill as originally drafted still has major flaws. It would expand not only the number of charter schools but also the number of "authorizers" that can grant charters. That second part is what's troublesome.
Under present law, proposed charters must first apply to their local school boards for approval, but many local boards put up roadblocks to discourage charters. They see charters as competitors rather than partners, says Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.
Part of Jindal's package would allow charter operators with a proven track record to apply directly to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is charter friendly. That part makes sense.
What doesn't make sense is allowing up to 40 additional entities — some of them potentially faith-based — to grant charters. That provision remained in the bill as it cleared the House, although the bar appears to be high.
Part of what makes most charters successful is the fact that they have to meet high standards — and face consequences if they don't. Making it easier to get a charter is fine for operators with a good track record, but lowering the bar by letting potential operators "forum shop" for a charter runs the risk of cheapening the brand — and actually doing quite a bit of harm to charters.
Now it's the state Senate's turn to consider Jindal's bills. Let's hope senators take the time to get it right.
People on both sides are predicting the good or evil that will flow from Jindal's new plans for public education. Here's one prediction all should agree on: Quick passage of these measures will significantly elevate Bobby Jindal's national stature just as the GOP is desperately casting about for someone who can speak for the hard right. Someone "new" and untainted by Washington. Someone young. Someone "ethnic." Someone who can bring evangelicals into Mitt Romney's fold.
This, no doubt, is one part of Jindal's plan that has been thoroughly vetted.