Getting serious with reform

Bobby Jindal has hoisted himself atop a tightly controlled bully pulpit to let all of us know that his top priority in the first year of his second term as governor is reforming education in the great—albeit woefully uneducated—state of Louisiana.

Despite repeated—and steep—cuts to higher education during his first four years in office, the governor has a panel of people studying higher education reform. Thus far, the most significant move seems to be granting universities, especially those adept at actually graduating students, the right to impose significant tuition hikes in an effort to mitigate the financial havoc wreaked by the governor and legislators. The second prong of this fascinating pass-the-buck strategy is Jindal’s vow to thwart attempts by legislators to impose a financial cap on the popular TOPS program.

As his advisers haggle over the grand-scheme-of-things role of regents, as in the state’s Board of, Jindal’s focus seems to laser fairly on K-12 education. Granted, we know little about Jindal’s plans to reverse Louisiana’s alarming legacy of utterly failing our children, but we do know it’s important to the governor because he tells us so on an almost daily basis.

Specifics are likely to come once his allies in the Legislature start filing bills on the governor’s behalf. However, it appears clear the driving themes behind Jindal’s brand of K-12 reform will be 1) expanding school choice options (more charter schools and an expanded voucher program), 2) improving teacher quality (overhauling tenure rules and tougher evaluation standards), 3) giving local educators some type of new flexibility on how dollars are spent in the classroom and 4) making it easier for voters to impose term limits on school board members.

All of these items are worthy of consideration and debate—and, undoubtedly, rhetoric (of the vitriolic variety) will attach itself to most of these issues. Certainly there are no magic or one-size-fits-all solutions. Equally certain is the offense all of us should take listening to those who continue to support a system that’s been an abysmal failure for more than three decades. That, of course, would be the teachers unions. Frankly, they need to be crushed.

Make no mistake, however, quality education in this state will remain an impossible dream until we get serious about tackling our appalling poverty problem and our escalating unfunded public pension debt liability.

Open all the charters one wants and dole out vouchers to every family in the state and that still won’t turn the academic tide for the vast majority of impoverished and malnourished children in Louisiana. Many factors go into successful achievement in the classroom, and a child’s belief that a good education is the gateway to a better life and breaking a cycle of poverty—which is generational in many families—is just as important as the quality of the teacher in the classroom.

It’s Jindal’s belief that job creation is the best remedy for poverty. He’s wrong. How can that be a solution when so many students leaving our public schools, many from impoverished neighborhoods, are nowhere close to being qualified for the jobs being created in today’s knowledge-based economic world? The poverty rate in this state—and in Baton Rouge in particular—is deplorable. The only way to address this shame is to start taking the $9 billion-plus this state spends annually to mitigate the problem and start spending it on actually solving the problem.

For those dismissing the retirement debt problem that threatens to bankrupt the state within the next decade, consider this: Essentially 70 cents of each dollar spent on education in Baton Rouge must be spent on the direct education of children. Yet of that number, 80% goes toward the salary and retirement expenses of those working in the schools. Doing the math, 56 cents of every classroom dollar spent goes not to books or computers but to salary and retirement expenses. Believe me, that massive liability is a major reason behind the objection to charters by many in the public school system. To them, the issue isn’t about educating children; it’s about seeing money they need to fund retirement systems following the student out the door. The liability doesn’t disappear, just the money to fund it.

It’s disappointing, at best, to hear the utter silence on both of these critical issues.

Poverty doesn’t stir passion with conservatives and unfunded retirement liability means little to liberals. Consequently both sides seem content to ignore reality.

However, if attacking the poverty problem and overhauling an unsustainable retirement system are not part of the discussion, then there will be no real reform in public education.

And the losers, once again, will be our children.

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