Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Policy Interventions or Political Posturing?

National Journal posed the following question, to which Forum Director Chris Lubienski responds:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., last Friday visited a private Catholic school, St. Mary's Academy in New Orleans, for a tour and a discussion with local education officials and families. The purpose of the visit, (gumbo and sazerac aside) was to promote Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's education agenda, much of which has landed in court. "We want to explore what has been gained in terms of experience to see how we can learn from this at the federal level," Cantor said after the event.
Jindal, a rising star in the Republican party, last year announced an ambitious education plan for Louisiana that has been cheered by school choice advocates and booed by teachers' unions. The plan forms a virtual battleground for a difficult education debate in a state whose schools are ranked among the very worst in the country. Louisiana is the perfect place for radical school proposals, and Jindal doesn't shy away from the task. His plan includes private school vouchers, severely weakened teacher tenure, and fast-tracking for charter schools.
Last week, a Louisiana court threw out Jindal's teacher tenure evaluation measure, saying it violated the state constitution because it contained too many unrelated provisions. Late last year, the same court said the voucher program was unconstitutional because it diverted local tax dollars to private schools.
Jindal is unbowed by the setbacks. "When we embarked on this path of reform, we knew this would not be an easy fight because the coalition of the status quo is entrenched and has worked to hold Louisiana teachers and students back for decades," he said in response to the most recent court ruling.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten cheered the ruling, saying elected officials can't force radical changes on the education system without consultation and deliberation. The court decision "should be a wake-up call to so-called reformers determined to ram through top-down dictates that undermine the voice of educators and public schools at all costs," she said.
What does Jindal's plan--and Cantor's interest in it--signify about Republicans' views on education? What is the impact on the public school system from school choice initiatives like Jindal's? What is the impact of eliminating the benefits of teacher tenure? Is it a direct attack on the teachers unions? Where can Democrats find common ground with Republicans in this conversation?
Dr. Lubienski's response:

Poor John White.  The Louisiana Superintendent’s efforts to do right (at least in his mind) by the state’s school children has earned him substantial credibility with the current crop of education reformers around the country.  But he also serves a governor who seems more intent on positioning himself with the right-wing of the GOP for a presidential run than on having a lasting beneficial impact on education in the Bayou state.

His boss, Governor Bobby Jindal has been causing quite a commotion, in the schools and in the courts.  He has tried to deepen and accelerate the market-oriented reforms that proliferated in post-Katrina New Orleans, expanding them across the state.  Jindal’s plan for education reform has a number of elements, but centers on:

·       expanding Louisiana’s voucher program statewide to students at more public schools
·       growing the supply-side by inviting more groups (including businesses) to provide education services
·       opening up more opportunities for “high quality charter operators” with “proven track records” to get established (so much for the local, independent “mom-and-pop” start-ups)
·       and, of course, cultivating a teacher labor market by undercutting tenure and salary scales, giving more authority to employers, and tying teachers’ value to students progress.

But then a Republican-appointed judge throws out the tenure reforms on a technicality, and rules that the voucher program undercut local control of public education resources. 

Is that a problem for the Jindal education agenda?  Hardly.  After all, the point isn’t to get these things implemented in order to improve the education of Louisiana kids.  Indeed, there’s precious little clear and compelling evidence that things like vouchers, monetary incentives for teachers, or even charter schools necessarily raise achievement for students (consider the continuing widespread failure in RSD), much less that scaling-up even these programs will work with a wider population. 

Instead, the Jindal education agenda appears to be more about positioning the governor as the standard bearer for ALEC-inspired education reforms, probably in preparation for a run for national office where he’ll need the support of influential and well-heeled conservative groups.  In that sense, it doesn’t matter if these measures “work,” or even if they’re implemented, but only that his proposals demonstrate superior commitment to the cause of attacking unions and elevating market mechanisms.

In that regard, Eric Cantor’s recent visit was likely to produce more in the way of political insights into Jindal’s electability than any policy insights into the efficacy of these programs. 

Meanwhile, as the political circus proceeds through Baton Rouge, and his boss engages in political posturing, John White has a lot of kids in need of a better education.

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