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So This Is Reform?

Dear Deborah,

A few weeks ago, the state legislature in Louisiana passed Gov. Bobby Jindal's education reform bill. Louisiana now goes to the head of the class as the state with the most advanced reform package in the nation. Surely, the Obama administration must be pleased, along with the governors of New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Maine, Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Unfortunately, "reform" today has become a synonym for dismantling public education and demoralizing teachers. In that sense, Bobby Jindal and his Teach For America/Broad-trained state Commissioner of Education John White are now the leaders of the reform movement.

The key elements of Louisiana's reform are: a far-reaching voucher program, for which a majority of students in the state are eligible; a dramatic expansion of charter schools, with the establishment of multiple new chartering authorities; a parent trigger, enabling parents in low-performing public schools to turn their schools into private charters; and a removal of teacher tenure.

The Jindal reforms were immediately hailed by a group of conservative state superintendents calling themselves "Chiefs for Change." The group's chairman, Tony Bennett, the state superintendent in Indiana, congratulated Louisiana and predicted that:

"These student-centered reforms will completely transform Louisiana and its students. Students will no longer have to settle for failing schools. Countless families will be able to select the best education option for their unique student's needs. And superintendents and principals will be empowered to hone faculties of talented, dynamic, and effective educators. Armed with these bold reforms, Louisiana will soon lead our country in quality public K-12 education."

Tony Bennett was speaking on behalf of Janet Barresi, the Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction; Stephen Bowen, Maine's commissioner of education; Chris Cerf, New Jersey's commissioner of education; Deborah A. Gist, Rhode Island's commissioner of elementary and secondary education; Kevin Huffman, commissioner of education in Tennessee; Paul Pastorek, a former Louisiana state superintendent and member emeritus of the group; Gerard Robinson, Florida commissioner of education; Hanna Skandera, New Mexico's public education secretary-designate and the vice chair of Chiefs for Change; Eric Smith, a former Florida education commissioner and member emeritus; and John White, Louisiana's superintendent of education. The group seems to be allied with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Elizabeth Walters, who teaches in St. Bernard parish in Louisiana, offered a very different perspective on the Jindal law.

Walters pointed out that Louisiana is ranked 49th in the nation on children's quality of life measures by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She notes that the legislation provides no new funds for any of its programs. When children leave to go to charters or voucher schools, their departure will diminish the funding of already underfunded schools. And it goes without saying that the legislation does nothing to address the poverty, hunger, and ill health that afflict the lives of so many children in Louisiana. The new law will create many new charter authorizers, each of whom is expected to approve at least five charters. For their trouble, the charter boards will collect a commission of about $100 for each child who enrolls in one of their schools, which translates into a windfall of a quarter-million dollars for boards that manage to attract 2,500 students from public schools. This is money out of the public schools' budget, of course.

As for teachers, the law will make sure that they live perpetually in fear, as they must be rated "highly effective" for five of every six years or face termination. Their salaries will vary from year to year depending on locally determined formulas that factor in test scores, experience, and subject matter.

Until now, 75 percent of the teachers in charter schools had to be certified. Under the Jindal law, charter teachers need no certification. All they need is a college degree, with no training whatsoever.

The law also includes generous funding for online course providers, whose courses must be included in the public schools' catalogues.

All in all, the Jindal legislation is the most far-reaching attempt in the nation to de-fund, dismantle, and obliterate public education. Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana state superintendent, calls this a "marketplace" approach, which is right. With no new funding, everyone gets to dip into the funds allocated for public schools and carve out a piece for themselves, for vouchers, charters, home-schoolers, and for-profit online providers.

Is there any evidence that any of these changes will improve education? No, none whatsoever. Does the Jindal law follow the lead of any of the high-performing nations? No. But that's what "reform" means today.

Diane

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