Interview: Jindal pushes school bill quickly

Gov. Bobby Jindal is pushing to fast-track his education proposal with lawmakers, with the centerpiece bills scheduled for hearings within days of the legislative session’s start Monday.

“We don’t expect to waste any time,” Jindal said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press.

The plans will kick off the three-month regular session with a speedier pace than usual. Jindal is proposing to revamp teacher pay and job protection laws, to create a statewide voucher program that uses state dollars to send children to private schools, to expand charter schools in the state and to grade Louisiana’s early childhood programs.

Most of the measures face opposition from traditional public school leaders and teacher unions that say Jindal’s trying to dismantle the public education system. They also argue the changes could leave the neediest and most at-risk children left in underfunded public schools.

The ideas were unveiled by the Republican governor in January, setting off an informal debate for the last two months.

“Whether you’re interested in lowering incarceration rates, improving health care outcomes or growing our economy, it all comes back to education,” Jindal said. “We want to make sure we give every child the opportunity for a great education. Everybody says they’re for that, but the reality is our policies don’t accomplish that today.”

Critics question if the governor’s proposing too much change with too little time for debate.

The House Education Committee is scheduled to spend Wednesday considering the governor’s proposals, with the companion Senate committee eyeing a similar hearing Thursday. The committees are packed with and led by allies of the governor.

A spokesman for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers said Jindal is trying to radically restructure public education and get the bills on their way to passage before lawmakers understand the full impact of the changes. Les Landon said the LFT is sending letters to education committee members, “urging them to slow down the train.”

“Each one of these bills has lots and lots of elements, and each of the elements is a radical change from past practice. It would truly be a disservice to teachers and to students if they try to ram them through without giving them proper consideration,” Landon said.

Jindal cites statistics that show Louisiana in the bottom five states for national achievement tests, one-third of public school students performing before grade level and 44 percent of schools graded at a D or F level in a statewide scale.

“It is not fair to tell those kids to just wait while we make incremental progress. They only get one chance to get a great education,” Jindal replied Friday.

The governor calls the education bills his top priority, followed by his package of proposals to overhaul retirement benefits for rank-and-file state employees.

The pension changes would shrink benefits for some workers, increase payments for thousands of employees and push back their retirement age. It would create a cheaper, 401(k)-type of investment account for new state employees, instead of giving them a monthly retirement payment based on their salaries.

The changes would help Louisiana rein in the costs of its retirement programs, which are $18.5 billion short of the money needed to cover benefits, Jindal said. The bills would help ensure the state has the money to keep its promises to retirees that they will receive benefits, without retirement costs eroding money for critical state services and infrastructure needs, he said.

“What we’re doing today is not sustainable. Part of the reason we’re in this hole is for too many years, politicians made promises without paying for those promises,” Jindal said. “If it’s wrong for the federal government to ignore their debt and to ignore their entitlement programs, it’d be wrong for the state of Louisiana to ignore this issue.”

Leaders of the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System argue Jindal’s proposals are unconstitutional and would break a contract made with employees when they were hired about the benefits they would receive.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal shakes hands withAlan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, left, as he arrives to address the state legislature on the opening session in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, March 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, pool)

Gerald Herbert