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La. Gov. Jindal Frames School Choice as a Matter of Equality

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Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, targeted teachers' unions as a major obstacle to the expansion of school choice, in a far-ranging speech held at the Brookings Institution this afternoon in Washington.

"There is one entity working hard every day, spending millions of dollars every year to make sure that you never get the opportunity to get your child out of a failing school," he said. "That is the teachers' unions."

At the same time, Jindal said he had appreciation and respect for the teaching profession, saying "we terribly undervalue teachers in this country." He argued that tying educators' compensation to student performance is necessary to bring new professionalism to teaching—a notion rejected by many educators.

Jindal asserted that the nation has a moral imperative to make sure that every child gets a great education, and that the current system is failing on that front. "It's not right that only wealthy parents get to choose where their kids go to school," he said. Providing access to a variety of school options—including charter schools, private schools, and virtual schools—to families of all incomes will provide all students with an equal opportunity to learn, he said.

Last April, Jindal signed into law a series of sweeping education policies in his state that expanded school choice by implementing a voucher program as well as a course-choice program that would let students take online or face-to-face courses provided by public or private entities.

But his agenda has faced major opposition from unions. Last month, the future of the voucher program was called into question when a state court judge ruled that its method of financing violated the state's constitution. The case stemmed from a lawsuit brought by a pair of teachers' unions, the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, along with the Louisiana School Boards Association, which had challenged the program's legitimacy on several fronts. Jindal has vowed to appeal the judge's decision, and the state has continued to implement the program since the judge's ruling.

Unions have been deeply skeptical of Jindal's agenda in creating the voucher program, and have accused the governor and state Superintendent of Education John White of pursuing an agenda that will weaken public schools.

"Governor Jindal and Superintendent John White continue to ignore the professionals and make decisions without even looking at our perspective," said Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators, in a statement issued after the court ruling. "They believe that the only answer is to divert funds away from inadequately-resourced classrooms and use standardized test scores to denigrate our schools and teachers. The biggest issue is their glorification of the phrase 'school choice,' which does not accurately describe the voucher program."

In his speech, Jindal tied an increase in student achievement to the expansion of school choice in the 58,000-student Recovery School District. Before Hurricane Katrina, and the formation of the Recovery School District, 77 percent of students attended a failing school, he said. Now, 78 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools and only 29 percent of students attend failing schools. Student scores on writing and math tests have doubled since 2007, he said. "There is no such thing as a quality monopoly," said Jindal. "It doesn't matter who runs the schools or oversees them if they're providing a high quality education."

In fact, the Recovery School District was ranked the best district in the nation for providing school choice and competition according to the second Education Choice and Competition Index produced by the Brookings Institution. The district was the only one to receive an 'A' letter grade out of 107 large districts that the organization evaluated. The top five districts in the index were: the Recovery District in New Orleans, New York City, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, and Houston.

Districts were evaluated on 13 metrics including the availability of alternative schools, how information about those options are made available to parents and other stakeholders, the choice architecture of the district, and how schools and alternative school choices are funded. A full scoring guide provides more detail on how districts were evaluated.

Brookings is offering more information about the index online, and the author of the index, Russ Whitehurst, who directs of the Brown Center on Education Policy, will take questions about the rankings during a web chat tomorrow from 12:30-1 p.m. Eastern time.

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