Commentary: Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal emerges as education reform leader

The week before last, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law three bills that were passed by the Louisiana legislature at his urging – measures that may help transform the educational system in that state.

House Bill 974 mandates that certain school districts in that state set specific performance targets to improve student achievement.

It further requires that the school districts in question delegate to superintendents and principals regarding the hiring and retaining of teachers based on teacher performance rather than years of service. The new law mandates that teacher tenure be earned at those school districts after five years in which the individual teacher has had good ratings based on the  academic performance of the students he or she has taught.

Another new law, House Bill 976, expands school choice for the parents of students in several ways. It includes a provision in which schools in which a majority of students enrolled have had three years of failing scores can be converted into a charter school — if at least 51 percent of the parents of the students enrolled sign a petition requesting that it become a charter school.  It also creates three additional ways in which a charter school can be founded, and streamlines the process by which such schools are approved by the state.

Louisiana’s H.B. 976 further permits students to have access to courses that are not offered at the school that he or she is enrolled in by creating a new entity that will offer individual courses to students in both private and public schools .

Senate Bill 581 establishes a coordinated early childhood system that will seek to insure that children will be prepared for kindergarten and also set performance targets for children ages three to four. That system will be in place by July 1, 2013, and will include a statewide definition of kindergarten readiness. It will also implement a uniform assessment and accountabilities system for publicly funded pre-school programs that will include letter grades.

The new law further mandates that all Head Start programs in Louisiana will participate in that system and be licensed by it.

The Louisiana Legislature’s willingness to enact these measures may have been based in part on the performance of the charter schools that were founded in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated that  city  in 2005.

The public school system in New Orleans was unable to function immediately after Katrina due to the damages done to many schools and the absence of teachers who had fled the area as a result of the hurricane. Several charter schools soon were opened as a result. Many of those schools rather quickly had students who had previously done poorly performing at or above grade level.

Soon, many community leaders in New Orleans who had been publicly skeptical about charter schools became supporters of the institutions.

When he signed the laws into effect, Jindal spoke of how those new provisions will give greater educational opportunities to Louisiana’s children — and said that he believed that they may serve as a model for other states that are trying to improve their educational systems.

The Louisiana Governor’s leadership on the issue of education is another way in which he is becoming a national political figure.

Editor’s Note: William F. O’Brien is an independent writer based in Oklahoma City. He writes regularly for The City Sentinel newspaper; this is his second report for CapitolBeatOK.