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Bipartisan push helped to pass education bills

The Associated Press
April 22, 2012

BATON ROUGE — If the argument were simply a matter of form over substance, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s critics would have a powerful point when they say his overhaul of public education was political theater designed to further whatever national ambitions he has.

Team Jindal crammed six bills’ worth of legislation involving school governance, financing of education, teacher job security, rules for charter schools and more into two bills, then muscled them through the House and Senate hearings and floor debates that sometimes lasted past midnight.

Yes, within those hearings and debates, plenty of stage time was afforded opponents to argue against the measures. But this was a sprint, not a marathon. And anyone who tried to get in the way was bowled over with the accusation that they were defenders of an indefensible status quo — poor schools in a state that consistently lags the rest of the nation in education.

Just as a successful push for ethics reform four years ago contributed to Jindal’s national image, the successful push of the education bills comes amid revived talk by national pundits that Jindal is vice presidential material. And, yes, the signing ceremony last week was political theater at its best: Jindal, surrounded by cute kids in Catholic school uniforms who looked on as he signed the bills while sitting at a desk adorned with a shiny red apple.

But that’s what politicians do and chalking this victory up as simply a power play by a conservative governor in a conservative state overlooks the broad array of supporters behind these bills.

Conservatives, Republicans and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry have long fought for vouchers with only limited success. But at some point over the last few years the idea of having taxpayers pay for private school tuition ceased to be simply a conservative cause. And ideological lines have been blurring for some time now on the matter of how much power local school boards should have in the day-to-day running of individual schools. The battles to end such “micromanaging” and give more power to superintendents sometimes pitted conservative against conservative.

On board with Jindal this time was the nonpartisan Council for a Better Louisiana. Another nonpartisan watchdog group, The New Orleans-based Bureau of Governmental Research was critical of some elements of the Jindal voucher plan but did not condemn the concept. The state’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Mary Landrieu, was largely on board with the substance of the bills — if not the way they were hurried through the Legislature.

Among the approximately one-third of legislators who voted against the bills, most were Democrats. But some Democrats crossed party lines to vote for the measure. One factor was that Team Jindal played political hardball — relieving one Democrat who voted against a related bill of his committee vice chairmanship. But, it could also be argued that Jindal wouldn’t have gotten votes from any Democrats who didn’t think they could defend those votes to their constituents.

Now, with the legislative battle over, the hard work falls on Education Superintendent John White and his department to make those changes work.

Obstacles ahead include an expected lawsuit or two from opponents who raise legitimate questions of whether the changes are constitutional, respectful of local voters’ choices on school board members and property taxes, and fair to teachers who have dedicated their lives to their profession. A bigger obstacle may be the sheer magnitude of the task, and the fact that, for all the strength of conviction the reformers bring to the new ways of doing things, there is no guarantee this will work.

Results from a limited voucher system in New Orleans, for instance, are mixed.

The reformers are keeping the faith; none more so than New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who during last week’s signing ceremony predicted transcendent change. “Ultimately,” he said of the legislation, “it will break the cycle of poverty.”

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