The Wall Street Journal

  • April 15, 2012, 5:59 p.m. ET

Reform School on the Bayou

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s choice and tenure changes could be a national milestone.

Governors of both parties have promoted education reform, but so far no one has delivered more than Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. This week he’ll sign two bills that offer a national model for competition and parental choice.

Louisiana’s new laws will essentially give all parents an average of $8,500 to use for their child’s education as they see fit. They can keep their child in their local public school, but they can also try to get Johnny into a more demanding charter school, or a virtual school, or into special language or career-training courses, among other options.

Nearly 400,000 low-income children—a bit more than half of all students—will also be eligible for vouchers to attend private schools. State officials estimate that about 2,000 students will use vouchers this September given private-school capacity limits, but that tens of thousands will do so over time.

Louisiana is also making life easier for charter schools, with new authorizing boards, a fast-track for high-performing networks, and access to facilities equal to that of traditional public schools. The new laws seek to strengthen superintendents and principals over local school boards, which are bastions of bureaucratic and union intransigence.

Nearly as dramatic are reforms in teacher tenure. To earn tenure, teachers will now have to rate in the top 10% (measured in part by student performance) for five of six consecutive years, and any teacher who falls into the bottom 10% loses tenure. No teacher in the bottom 10% can get a raise, while layoffs will no longer hit the junior-most teachers first while ignoring performance.

Mr. Jindal made school reform a second-term priority after winning a landslide re-election last November. By then he had appointed or helped elect reformers to the state superintendent’s office and board of education.

Louisiana voters also had a preview of reform’s potential. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans schools have become almost exclusively charters—with dramatic academic improvements—and the city has run a small and oversubscribed voucher program since 2008. As for tenure, the reforms attach consequences to a teacher-evaluation system enacted in 2010.

The result: the reforms attracted bipartisan legislative majorities of roughly 60%. Over four votes (two different bills, each having to pass the House and Senate), one-quarter to one-half of Democrats voted for reform, including many black representatives, especially those from New Orleans.

Teachers unions were predictably opposed and even heavier-handed than usual. Michael Walker Jones of the Louisiana Association of Educators dismissed choice on grounds that “If I’m a parent in poverty I have no clue because I’m trying to struggle and live day to day.” Unions pushed principals to cancel school—sometimes giving parents less than 24 hours notice—so teachers could protest at the state Capitol. It was a tired act.

Mr. Jindal joins Indiana’s Mitch Daniels in passing the most far-reaching school reforms, and now they’ll have to follow through to produce better student outcomes. Unions will seize on any troubles as a sign of failure, but success might catalyze similar reforms across the country that could finally improve the life prospects for all American children.


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