Why Democrats Must Categorically Reject Bobby Jindal’s Education Plan

Jeff Bryant

My colleague Bill Scher recently called our attention to an opinion piece by Thomas Edsall in The New York Times that revealed “the Republican appropriation of leftist populist rhetoric.”

Republicans “plan to bring the fight to the Democrats on their own turf,” according to Edsall. He cites numerous examples of “the Republican appropriation of leftist populist rhetoric (and even policies),” and an “emerging Republican populism” that he pegs to “the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, which has now been adopted and amplified by a younger generation of conservatives.”

Edsall concludes, “The danger for Democrats is that they will lose ownership of the issues.” But Scher cautions, “There remains one obstacle that Republicans must overcome: reckon with their past failures.”

Approaching the 2016 election season, Scher explains, “The level of scrutiny for Republicans will be exponentially greater. Republicans could get away with not proposing any ideas in 2014. That will be impossible for 2016.”

Although neither Edsall or Scher mentions it, education is one front where the apparent strength of newfound Republican populist rhetoric threatens the Democrat Party’s traditional “ownership of the issues,” to use Edsall’s words.

Prominent Republicans who many assume to be presidential contenders in the 2016 election, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, are putting education front and center in public events and policy maneuverings.

Often, what they advocate – that education is a moral imperative and low-income children deserve access to quality education – sounds like what a Democratic candidate would say.

However, because most potential candidates from the Republican side are sitting or past governors, there certainly are “past failures” to be reckoned with. And while their rhetoric may sound populist, the ideas they put forward are anything but.

A likely Republican presidential hopeful – Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal – has an education prescription he is eager to roll out to the nation. He embellishes the plan with the language of opportunity, freedom, and the moral obligation for change. And it’s not at all clear how – or even whether – Democrats will challenge him.

Moral Imperative For What?

This week, Bobby Jindal came to the nation’s capital to proclaim a “sweeping education plan,” according to The Daily Signal, the news outlet for The Heritage Foundation, a Beltway conservative think tank.

Waving a 42-page “K-12 Education Reform: a Roadmap,” Jindal laid out a national policy, according to Heritage, “devoted to what it calls the principles of parent choice, limited government, and educator freedom.”

Calling for “a moral imperative to provide a quality education to each child,” Jindal’s plan advocates for increasing “school choice,” “reforming” teacher tenure, and rejecting new Common Core standards that are being implemented in most states, including Louisiana.

More specifically, Jindal wants more school vouchers, called “scholarship programs,” that allow parents to take money budgeted for public schools and use it to send their kids to private schools. He wants to increase the numbers of charter schools. He advocates for less “regulation,” including fewer state and federal requirements for teacher certification and job protections for experienced teachers. And he wants to abandon Common Core standards he used to support.

“Jindal’s national education reform package mirrors his efforts in Louisiana,” New Orleans-based news outlet The Times-Picayune reported. New Orleans, where the state took over the vast majority of schools after hurricane Katrina, most closely reflects Jindal’s ideas for unleashing school privatization, deregulating the teaching profession, and greatly expanding charter schools.

“Smart policy,” a Heritage staffer described the Jindal plan.

Troubling Results

Unfortunately, for Jindal, conservatives in charge of education policy in Louisiana have produced some very troubling results.

As my colleague Isaiah J. Poole observed in an email, “Interesting that the Daily Signal piece seems to divorce Louisiana’s low ranking of its public schools from who controls the governor’s mansion and the state legislature.”

What Poole refers to is Louisiana’s historically low performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a.k.a., “The Nation’s Report Card.”

As The Times-Picayune reported after the most recent NAEP results for Louisiana, in reading, fourth graders in that state ranked above their peers in only three other school systems – Washington D.C., New Mexico and Mississippi. Louisiana’s fourth-grade math scores tied for last place with Mississippi. Eighth graders’ math scores ranked above only those for Alabama and D.C., while Louisiana’s reading scores topped those of students in only New Mexico, Mississippi and D.C. (The version of NAEP referred to assesses reading and math in only those two grade levels.)

Trends in NAEP assessments have not fared any better under the Jindal administration. With the exception of eighth-grade reading scores, which increased two points from 2011, progress for Louisiana students on the test “was mainly flat,” the reporter noted.

It Gets Worse

When you look at other sources of assessment data on Louisiana schools, it only gets worse.

As cross-town think tank rival Center for American Progress observed in a Think Progress email blast, “holding up New Orleans’ all-charter Recovery School District as a model for the nation” may not be such a good idea.

Pointing to new data leaked to Louisiana public school teacher and edu-blogger Mercedes Schneider, CAP’s reporter Alice Ollstein writes, “Most of the class of 2014 graduating from the 100%-charter New Orleans Recovery School District scored so low on the national ACT test that they didn’t meet the minimum requirements for Louisiana’s colleges.”

“Just over 6 percent of high school seniors in the Recovery School District scored high enough in English and Math to qualify for admission into a Louisiana four-year college or university straight out of high school. Five of the district’s 16 high schools produced not a single student who met these requirements. … Despite Jindal’s claims of ‘remarkable gains,’ there has been only a 2-point improvement in New Orleans’ Recovery School District ACT scores since 2005. The class average is now 16.4, one of the lowest in Louisiana. There was a 0.6 decline statewide.”

The Think Progress post concludes by pointing to Jindal’s efforts to cut hundreds of millions of dollars to his own state’s education budget, in complete rejection of the research clearly showing the relationship of sufficient money to school quality.

What Jindal advocates for in place of money is a belief in “choice” as a cure-all for struggling schools.

You Call This ‘Choice’?

As I observed in a post for Salon, “school choice” under the Jindal regime has been largely a mirage.

“If you’re a parent in New Orleans,” I wrote, “you can apply to send your kid to some of the worst performing schools in a state with one of the lowest achievement levels in America … Further, the NOLA system means that if you don’t like your child’s school, you’re less likely to have a way to do something about it, because the charters are often run by private boards and management companies, many of which aren’t based in New Orleans or even based in Louisiana. This is called ‘choice.’”

“There is a cruel hoax being perpetrated upon the most academically needy students in New Orleans,” writes New Orleans public school parent and education activist Karran Harper Royal on the website of Parents Across America.

“New Orleans schools are not a model that should be replicated across this country, unless we want to replicate trapping students in failing schools so that charter schools can have the appearance of being successful.”

Harper Royal elaborates further on the school choice failure in an interview with Rethinking Schools. “Most of these new charter schools have very young, inexperienced staff; they simply don’t know what they’re doing, and the children pay the price in the lack of a quality educational program. They pay the price when they don’t fit into the model that the school founder has dreamed up. Children with disabilities are treated as liabilities. These charter schools further segregate children based on ability level – more so than any traditional school district ever did.”

Indeed, numerous studies have shown “school choice” and the proliferation of charter schools generally increase segregation of students on the basis of race, income and ability.

School Voucher Travesty

Voucher programs touted by Jindal have resulted mostly in a glut of public money going to private schools teaching dubious curricula filled with religion and right-wing propaganda.

In another Salon piece, I pointed to recent research that found at least 20 schools receiving money from state voucher programs teaching “a creationist curriculum … These 20 schools have been awarded 1,365 voucher slots and can receive as much as $11,602,500 in taxpayer money annually.”

Further, “voucher schools rarely if ever show evidence of improving the academic outcomes of children … There’s little evidence school vouchers generally represent a systemic way to ‘rescue’ students from underperforming schools. In voucher schools in Louisiana, for instance, nearly half of the students in the state’s program last year used voucher money to attend ‘schools with performance scores in the D to F range of the state’s grading scale’ – hardly “a move up from the back of the line” for these children.”

What Jindal’s plan for voucher and charter school expansions certainly achieves is robbing public schools of the money they need to educate their students. As he calls for more cuts to public school budgets, the opening of new charters and the diversion of tax money to school vouchers further depletes the resources of neighborhood schools.

As a local news source in Lafayette, La., The Advocate, recently reported, public schools in that community “could lose up to $17 million over the next two school years as the three charter schools in the parish expand and a new charter school opens.”

While the local school board had rejected the initial applications for the charters, the state board approved the new schools, forcing them on the local community.

Common Core Diversion

In the meantime, likely as a diversion to his sorry record, Jindal has turned the Common Core standards into a political football. As education historian Diane Ravitch explains on her personal blog site, “Jindal signed the agreement to adopt Common Core. But when Common Core turned toxic among conservative voters, Jindal declared he would pull his state out of Common Core and the federal test.”

As he and state commissioner John White jockey for who will get the upper hand on education policy, “Teachers and schools are caught in the middle. They don’t know what test will be the state test this coming school year.”

This really is the Louisiana plan Jindal wants to roll out across America: More imposition of privatization, and more politicization of education policy, not better results for students.

Where Are The Democrats?

For sure, there are strong divides within the Republican Party over some education issues, most notably the Common Core standards.

But Republicans remain united in their rhetoric, while Democratic candidates counter with … what?

Returning to Edsall’s warning, “The danger for Democrats is that they will lose ownership of the issues.”

As Republican candidates frame their education ideas in the language of freedom – talking about “unlocking” schools from “government control” and “unleashing” parents to exercise more “choice” – Democrats can’t simply say, “Oh, I’m for choice and charter schools, too.” That would place the Republican frame around their necks.

Scher is right that the Republicans’ track record for education is their undoing. So seeking “the center” and copying Republican education policies, as Democrats have a tendency to do, will likely lead to more assurance of a Democratic Party defeat.

Instead, Democrats must reclaim the turf of a party intent on providing the best possible education, and nothing less, to each child.

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