Gov. Jindal received the highest marks of Louisiana’s past six governors in an October survey of voters, but if education advancements had been taken into account, he wouldn’t have fared as well. Any reform-minded observer who has followed educational developments over the four-decade span that the survey covers would likely give the highest grades to Mike Foster, a Republican who served from 1996-2004 and Democrat Kathleen Blanco who served ’04-’08.

Jindal has promised to make education his second-term priority, but so far he has won few stripes in that department.

 The WWL-TV popularity poll of potential voters showed that Jindal led the pack with 35 percent of those surveyed, with Edwin Edwards, fresh out of federal prison, snaring 30 percent. Foster (who voters seem to have forgotten) got only 11 percent, even though he’s the esteemed father of several educational reforms that actually succeeded. Blanco, who wrestled with the after-effects of two major hurricanes in one season, garnered seven percent and Republicans Buddy Roemer and David Treen trailed with five and four percent, respectively.

These kinds of surveys are imprecise because name recognition usually prevails. In this case, the survey was another indicator of Jindal’s super-slide into his second term, and Edward’s lingering popularity with voters who believed in the equal opportunity ideals of the 1970s and ’80s.

Foster, another popular governor, made some missteps, but he deserves a good deal of credit for current improvements in New Orleans schools.

Blanco, the state’s first female governor and a former educator herself, follows close behind and gets second billing from this long-time education writer simply because much of what was accomplished under her watch was an addition to Foster’s trailblazing.

 Foster’s administration ushered in the accountability system that’s the backbone of current education improvements. He also directed the development of the system of community colleges that are currently training people for real jobs, such as X-ray technicians, nurses and chemical plant processors.

A wealthy farmer turned politician, Foster made education a top priority from the very start. He fought for and achieved higher teacher salaries, which at the time were dismally low in comparison to other states. At the same time, his administration introduced the state’s current school accountability system that links grade promotion to standardized tests and uses other data to identify failing schools and target them for improvements. The state Department of Education uses this system today to give schools and school districts letter grades of “A” to “F.”

 Frustrated with his inability to raise salaries up to the Southern average, Foster promised to not take a salary until his goal was reached.

Nonetheless, teachers got raises during his first term. The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, a nonprofit research center dedicated to school improvements, said in a 2007 report that “Louisiana teachers received the highest average salary increase in the country (5.8 percent) during the 1996-’97 year,” even though its national salary rank of 48th remained the same.

Foster’s policies were carried forward during Blanco’s administration. In 2007, three years after Foster’s departure, her administration won legislative passage of a raise that brought teacher pay up to the Southern average, a feat Foster had been unable to achieve. Blanco’s influence also secured the appointment of Paul Pastorek, the former state superintendent of education whose aggressive reform agenda is still rocking the educational establishment to its core.

More important, her administration piggybacked on legislation signed by Foster to create the Recovery School District, a state school district created to take over schools identified as “failing” by new criteria. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the majority of New Orleans’ schools, the Legislature decided to take control of 107 failing New Orleans schools and placed them in the RSD. Blanco signed the takeover into law. Today, Department of Education statistics show that most of the schools have improved significantly. The RSD’s school performance scores, based on test scores and other factors, have climbed from 51.8 percent in 2008 to 66.7 percent in ’11, with the largest jump occurring between ’10 and ’11.

To his credit, Jindal has supported the reform policies of his predecessors. On the other hand, the education initiatives of his own administration have been a mixed bag. Legislation allowing colleges and universities more flexibility over tuition hikes was a positive move toward bringing more income to financially struggling campuses. But then again, he’s also partly responsible for their financial plight. Budget cuts to higher education over the course of his first term resulted in faculty and staff layoffs that have reduced student services and course availability on many campuses.

Some would argue these cuts were the result of the economic downturn, but a major blow was struck in 2008 just after Jindal took office. About the time the recession hit and diminished state revenues across the nation, the Legislature, with Jindal’s blessing, rolled back tax rates. The action gave some relief to taxpayers – mostly rich ones – but the end result was a then-projected loss of $300 to $350 million in state revenue. With most areas of the state budget protected by the Constitution, higher education and health services took the brunt of the budget reductions.

Jindal also tried to force greater cooperation between the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans, but the measure failed in the Legislature. Both four-year campuses are neighbors on the Lakefront, but they have separate administrations, faculty and facilities.

Critics of the financial inefficiency of this arrangement have long suggested a merger, but Southern University supporters have deflected such attempts.

Jindal has said education is his new priority, but just how that promise will shake out is unknown. A decade from now, it will be clear what kind of personal stamp he leaves on education.

Other Education Highlights
Buddy Roemer, who served as governor from 1988-’92, was the first of the last six governors to confront the state’s educational deficiencies. He pushed through an education reform package requiring that all teachers be evaluated by the state and recertified every three years. The effort faced a brick wall of opposition from teachers and their unions and was suspended before Roemer left office.

During Edwin Edwards’ final term, 1992-’96, a toothless version of Roemer’s plan won approval. It offered professional mentoring to teachers deemed ineffective.