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Battling Over Vouchers, and Rhetoric in Louisiana

Earlier this month, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal unveiled a broad series of education proposals, which included an expansion of private school vouchers in his state and overhauling how teachers are evaluated and compensated.

"This is a bold plan and a signal to teachers—at all career stages—that help is on the way," the Republican said.

Leaders of the state's teachers' unions, however, don't see it that way.

Union officials heavily criticized the governor's proposals, and in particular the language he used to sell them, which they found demeaning to teachers. In his speech announcing his plan, the governor drew an unfavorable comparison between public education and the way businesses are run, saying that K-12 systems' use of tenure and seniority-based protections drive effective teachers out of profession. (See my previous post on the governor's arguments.)

Jindal said teachers "are given lifetime job protection. Short of selling drugs in the workplace or beating up one of the business' clients, they can never be fired." Calling for changes to the system, he said his message to young teachers is that if changes are not made, "you will never get recognized for your talent, you will never be paid what you are worth, and you will have to pick up the slack for your underperforming colleagues," according to a transcript of the Jan. 17 speech. He said that if "any actual business was set up like this, they would go under in a matter of months."

At one point he called for changing tenure practices so that they recognize high-performers, rather serving as indicators that teachers "have merely survived for three years." He said teachers need to be paid based on performance "instead of for the length of time they have been breathing."

The Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers weren't too keen on the governor's presentation.

The LFT's president, Steve Monaghan, said Jindal was wrong on the facts and said his descriptions of educators was "unjust and insulting,"

"It would indeed be unfortunate if the tone set in his speech is an indicator of the attitude he and his allies will assume in the upcoming legislative session." Monaghan said in a statement. He asked that state officials stage a "civil conversation with educators."

But this week, the governor said the unions were out of touch with the concerns of parents in the state. He pointed to a comment made by a Louisiana union official who questioned whether parents would be given adequate information to make informed decisions about participating in a state voucher program.

"To me that is incredibly offensive and exactly what is wrong with the top-down approach," Jindal said earlier this week, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

This feud partly reflects the divisiveness surrounding voucher proposals in the states—which have been determinedly opposed by unions. But it's also another reminder of how hard elected officials and unions are fighting to frame their arguments about how teachers should be paid, evaluated, and rewarded as professionals with language that they believe will appeal to the public—and how loaded a lot of that language is.

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