In the weeks between announcing the nation’s farthest-reaching education agenda and its reception in the Louisiana legislature upon opening March 12, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has departed from his usual consensus-building to take on teacher unions.
It’s hard to summarize Jindal’s education proposals—they’re so numerous, comprehensive, and built upon other states’ experience they might be described as a conservative policy wonk’s Christmas list.
They root up and re-seed the ground in myriad areas: the largest vouchers program in the country, for which half the state’s kids would be eligible; shifting teacher tenure and pay away from union-favored “step-and-lane” pay schedules, “last in, first out,” seniority rules, and lifetime job security. There are policies to create a statewide charter school explosion like that unique to New Orleans post-Katrina, as well as smaller-but-significant policies such as a Parent Trigger, letting kids who graduate high school early take their state education funds to college. His proposals would also grant far greater authority to local principals and superintendents in selecting personnel and managing money.
Though Jindal spent months including teacher union representatives in discussions about education policy before announcing these proposals, it’s not surprising they responded almost immediately with something akin to fury.
The state’s largest teachers union, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, directly and repeatedly targets the governor on its home page. It criticizes “a more than obvious display of deference to Governor Bobby Jindal,” has started a petition drive to “Tell Gov. Jindal that he's wrong about teachers and public schools!” and describes the “Tone of Jindal’s speech uneven, in part offensive.” Yes, his tone.
The biggest incident between the two occurred when Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators, made a comment about why parents and families should not have more choices in education.
"If I'm a parent in poverty I have no clue because I'm trying to struggle and live day to day," he told the Times-Picayune, referring to why parents may make poor decisions if given the ability.
Jindal immediately fired back, calling the comment “offensive” and “arrogant,” saying Walker-Jones should resign and the union apologize for his comments. Jindal received backup from the Louisiana chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, whose co-founder said Walker-Jones "has no business overseeing an organization that purports to serve a population he does not understand."
Walker-Jones refused to resign. The two state teacher unions will set forth their own education proposals, calling for piles of money and keeping poor and mediocre teachers in the classroom—“more investment” and “teacher development,” respectively.
The local news media has largely been critical of what the Wall Street Journal called “Jindal’s Education Moon Shot,” but his landslide 2011 re-election suggests Louisianans largely support his policies. Jindal won straight from the state’s open primary with 65 percent of the vote.
Since Hurricane Katrina shook the state, Louisiana teachers unions have been losing power. The storm wiped out many of the state’s infrastructures, including in education. Seventy percent of New Orleans kids attend a charter school, which are largely non-unionized, and are gaining ground after decades of abject failure. Similar movements are coalescing around the state.
It remains to be seen how Jindal’s popularity and aggressive full-court press on education will influence the legislature. Local observers have told me it will be an “interesting session,” but that Jindal just might make his shots.