A politically astute friend who shall remain nameless has been quick to challenge last week’s suggestion that Gov. Bobby Jindal may have lost his Midas touch. He described, in so many words, the notion that Jindal’s luck may have been pushed to the breaking point as about as realistic as Newt Gingrich’s chances of capturing the GOP presidential nomination.
“Don’t believe it,” our friend, longtime political observer, cautioned. “The governor got exactly what he wanted with the committee assignments in the House and Senate. Those (who) dared criticize him in the past have been removed from the money committees and banished to Labor or cultural Affairs and other backwater committees.”
Strong words indeed. But he wasn’t finished. “He has a hand-picked Education Committee in both chambers to do his bidding, not to mention the rubber-stamp BESE. And speaking of education, the governor finally announced his agenda for the 2012 session.”
He went on to say of that education plan released by Jindal on Jan. 17 that if people read it carefully and also read between the lines, they will understand that it is nothing more than a blueprint “to destroy public education in Louisiana.”
“If he can pull off even half of what he is proposing for education, it will be the most sweeping changes in the history of public education in Louisiana,” he said. Note that he never said that he thinks the plan is good.
“Teachers are going to be furious,” he said. His (Jindal’s) strategy to drive a wedge between superintendents, principals and school boards is ingenious. Divide and conquer!
“I’m not sure the public will see this plan for what it is: to destroy public education in this state and replace (it) with state-controlled charter schools and the like. I am not in favor of that but I’d say he has set himself up for a lot of success.
“The main problem is the teachers unions are their own worst enemies and I’m not sure they understand what approach they need to take to counteract the governor. If they set themselves up as simply opposed to any change just to be opposed to change, the governor will eat them alive. The public realizes that the education system is broken and they want change. Jindal will use that to get what he wants.”
Never one to be labeled as a one-trick pony, our friend dug the knife in a little deeper with his observations about the flare-up between Jindal, aka Booby Jihad, and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, a flare-up that sputtered and died a quick death once Caldwell got a quick lesson in political realities.
Caldwell had earlier had the temerity to challenge Jindal’s decision to pay attorneys representing the state in the BP Gulf spill litigation a percentage of any recovery as opposed to an hourly rate favored by Caldwell.
Caldwell, supposedly the state’s top legal expert (excluding judges, who always have the final say), accused Jindal of interfering with his (Caldwell’s) handling of the case. Jindal further outraged Caldwell by signing off on a legal document in which Jindal agreed not to appeal any awards made for legal fees, and Caldwell, who doubles as a part time Elvis impersonator, said so.
You’ll just have to forgive us here, but Jindal thought Caldwell’s Suspicious Mind was Too Much and got All Shook Up. The governor, through an intermediary, sent Caldwell the message that it was all about the Money Honey and by the time it was over, Caldwell was singing Don’t Be Cruel.
Okay, that’s enough of that. In reality, our friend said, “Caldwell forgot a fundamental rule of politics: he who pays the fiddler calls the dance. Caldwell (and most of the other statewide elected officials) thinks he can do what he wants because is independently elected. But he forgot that the governor controls the purse strings (read: agency budget allocations). Oops!’”
Pension Plan Changes Proposed
On Wednesday of this week, Jindal released his plan to overhaul Louisiana’s state employee pension system that would increase retirement contributions for about 54,000 current employees while reducing benefits and extending the eligible retirement age for many of them.
Jindal also wants to move away from the present system for new hires, doing away with the monthly pension check to a lump sum retirement payment based on contributions and earnings. This would abolish the present defined benefits system in favor of a defined contribution one whereby employees no longer would be guaranteed a set monthly retirement payment but instead would make a guaranteed contribution to the pension system with no guarantee of return, much like a 401K program.
Oddly, Jindal’s proposal would apply only to the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System (LASERS), which has an unfunded liability of $6.45 billion. He exempts the state’s other three systems—teachers, school employees and state police. The Teachers Retirement System alone has a debt of $10.8 billion.
He said he prefers to leave teachers and school employees alone for the time being because of proposed educational changes on the horizon.
He said legislation will be pre-filed this week for consideration during the upcoming 85-day legislative session that opens on March 12.
Education Fight Looms
In his press conference last week, Jindal chose to unveil his education plans at the annual meeting of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), a virtual slap in the face to teachers, the group that he should have been addressing. But a virtual slap is probably appropriate considering his penchant for charter schools and virtual schools.
Just what is a virtual school anyway? Does it provide a virtual education? Do graduates get virtual jobs? Do they pay virtual taxes and give virtual campaign contributions?
Jindal, as is his custom, continues to paint all teachers with the same broad brush, a tactic that is patently unfair and grossly inaccurate. He talks about failing schools and poor teachers and giving students—the better students, to be sure—into better schools (read: charters).
To say a student fails because of a poor teacher is not only callous, but stupid. For example, in a class of say, 25 students, there are 23 students from poor economic backgrounds. Still, six of these students excel in classroom work and make top grades. Nineteen make Cs, Ds, and Fs. This same scenario is repeated throughout the school so the school is a failing school and the teachers are labeled as poor teachers and fired under Jindal’s plan.
But how does one explain those six students in that class who excel? Did they make top grades without the benefit of good teaching? No, Mr. Jindal, they did not, any more than the nineteen did poorly because of bad teaching. All 25 students were exposed to the same classroom material, had access to the same textbooks and took the same tests.
In my own school, Ruston High School, I sat in the same classroom with students who slept during class, never turned in homework assignments, never participated in classroom discussions, and consistently made D’s and F’s on tests. I also sat in the same classroom with Joel Tellinghusen who would go on to pioneer laser surgery, and Bill Higgs who would one day become an acclaimed heart surgeon in Mobile, Alabama. A couple of years ahead of me was Patricia Wells who would go on to a stellar career as a soprano with the Metropolitan Opera.
So, were the teachers at Ruston High School graded on the basis of those who did poorly or on the basis of the Joel Tellinghusens, Bill Higgs and Pat Wells? We will never know because that absurd method of grading schools wasn’t around then. They just let teachers teach. Wow. What a concept.
When kids come from poor economic backgrounds and parents take little or no interest in the children’s educational progress, kids generally reflect those demographics with poor grades. Motivated students listen to teachers, read assignments, do homework, and do well on tests. Period.
Yet, we have an outfit called Educate Now in this state that lists schools in New Orleans only by whether or not they are Recovery School District (RSD) schools or voucher-accepting private schools. The organization then lists the percentage of students who score above basic on English and math in grades 3-5.
That’s it. There is no attempt to take into account students’ prior achievement, no consideration of demographic variables like economic background, and no consideration of whether or not students are eligible for vouchers only if they had been attending a failing public school.
In short, there is no statistical analysis whatsoever—a pitiful method of judging the merit of voucher schools.
“The governor wants the new untested teacher evaluation program to form the basis for firing or demoting large numbers of teachers based on student test scores,” said Michael Deshotels, a retired educator.
“Never have I seen such a misguided and wrong-headed attempt to implement change in our educational system as was announced by Gov. Jindal on Tuesday,” he said. “If you study the governor’s proposals you can only come to the conclusion that he believes that the teaching profession in Louisiana is rife with incompetent or lazy teachers and administrators, and that if we simply fire and replace them our students will magically start doing much better on the state tests. Almost everything in the governor’s plan is based on this incorrect assumption,” he said.
Ron Clark, a teacher who started his own academy in Atlanta, had an interesting perspective on teaching and so-called failing schools: “It’s usually the best teachers who are giving the lowest grades because they are raising expectations. The truth is, a lot of times it’s the bad teachers who give the easiest grades because they know by giving good grades everyone will leave them alone. Parents will say, ‘My child has a great teacher! He made all A’s this year’ and the teacher (parents) are complaining about is actually the one that is providing the best education.”
The problem with Jindal’s plan for education, says Deshotels, is that “it is based upon an untested value-added model similar to one that is already failing in Tennessee and New York. In Louisiana the two chief architects of the new value-added model have resigned from their roles in the program, passing this potential monster on to other staff,” he added.