If Gov. Bobby Jindal plans to seek the Republican nomination for president in the next election cycle, he doesn’t have much time left to finalize his resume of accomplishments. The planning stages for such a campaign begin years before the party primaries actually start, and the 2016 general election isn’t that far away.
Jindal’s second-term education reform efforts in Louisiana’s kindergarten through 12th grade schools have potential as national talking points in his favor, but if his lack of support for higher education continues, his opponents could attack any claims to success as an education governor.
His critics also could shoot some poison darts in the area of kindergarten through 12th grade education. If there’s an exodus of good teachers in response to some of the more punitive aspects of his 2012 education legislation, which created tough evaluation and tenure measures, the wisdom of the law’s provisions could be a source of debate.
An exodus of teachers seemed to be materializing recently when the Baton Rouge Advocate reported a 25 percent increase in teacher retirements since 2010. The state Department of Education, which often gives the appearance of being run primarily from the governor’s office, quickly moved to discredit the impression that teachers are leaving in response to Jindal’s reform package. The DOE said in a press release that the overall attrition of teachers in the past three years has remained steady at between 11 and 12 percent. The Teachers’ Retirement System responded with its own press release saying that the TRS and DOE numbers are not contradictory. The DOE’s numbers focus on teacher departures of all kinds, not only retirement-related departures. State Superintendent John White told several newspapers across the state that the DOE’s attrition numbers mostly reflect the fact that teachers deemed ineffectual by the new evaluation system are leaving.
However, Susan Summers, a New Orleans teacher, blasted White’s comments in an Advocate opinion letter. She said she’s a national certified teacher with 25 years of experience, and she’s retiring because she can no longer endure White’s abuse of teachers.
“The lies, the spin, the disrespect and vitriol against hard-working excellent teachers that spews from Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White’s mouth keep coming faster and faster,” she wrote.
Also the voucher system that Jindal pushed through the Legislature last year could be used against him on the national stage. The program could get struck down by the state Supreme Court before it can produce any evidence that it works. A state judge has already declared the legislation unconstitutional because it uses money intended to support public schools to pay the tuition of eligible private and parochial school children.
Conversely, if the voucher program survives the court challenge, but test scores don’t support the assumption that private and parochial schools do a better job than public schools, Jindal won’t have bragging rights there, either.
These pieces of signature legislation need to produce positive results before 2016, because any attempt on his part to take credit for the success of the charter schools in raising test scores in New Orleans could easily be discredited by historical fact. Former governors Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco, a Republican and Democrat, respectively, deserve that credit, along with hundreds of others. Jindal supports the concept of school autonomy, which drives charter schools’ success, but the hard work that went into laying the foundation for charter schools predates his election to governor.
Jindal’s stature as a governor dedicated to educational quality is even more tenuous in higher education. State funding for community colleges and universities was cut $625 million – roughly 42 percent – between 2008 and ’12, according to figures provided by the Board of Regents, Louisiana’s coordinating board for higher education. These massive cuts coincide with Jindal’s election to the governor’s office. He and his party’s efforts to reduce government spending have resulted in repeated cuts to higher education and health care, because much of everything else funded by state government is constitutionally protected.
The state has allowed colleges and universities to raise tuition to offset some of the reductions. Even with this additional revenue, however, institutions of higher learning have been operating with about $300 million less money than they did five years ago, a Board of Regents report shows. Moreover, rising costs for such budget items as utilities and insurance have led to even greater decreases in the revenue campuses have to spend for academic instruction. Most faculty haven’t received raises since Jindal took office, and their very positions could be at risk if the declines in state funding continue. Reductions of staff and administrative employees have already begun at Delgado Community College and Southern University at New Orleans and other campuses could follow suit any day.
At Nunez Community College, state funding has been cut by $2.32 million since 2008, according to Louisiana Community and Technical College System figures. The college’s total “spendable” budget in ’08, including tuition and fees, was $7.47 million, but by last year that “spendable” budget had dropped to $5.62 million, for a total loss of $1.85 million in revenue.
“We are bare bones right now,” said Nunez Community College Chancellor Thomas Warner. “If we take another cut, we may need to lay off employees as other colleges have done.”
So far, colleges and universities have avoided shedding full-time faculty, but in some cases they’re leaving anyway to take more secure positions.
In February, the Advocate reported that Louisiana State University System President William Jenkins warned a group studying the university’s financial problems that LSU’s national status as a top tiered university is in jeopardy. Jenkins also said the university has lost several important researchers and other faculty recently, which has lowered grant income and driven the faculty-student ratio up to 23 to 1 from 19 to 1.
National talk show hosts and editorial columnists toss out Jindal’s name frequently as a possible 2016 contender for president. However, raising the millions he would need for campaigning requires convincing donors and voters that he has what it takes to solve the country’s problems.
If his educational policies in Louisiana prove to do more harm than good, he may have some explaining to do on the national stage.
Editor’s Note: Dawn Ruth is a former education reporter for The Times-Picayune. She is now on the English faculty at Nunez Community College.