Can Louisiana education reform survive teachers unions' assault?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

HAVING THWARTED efforts to revamp teacher evaluations in Florida, teachers unions are now aiming to block reform in Louisiana. An intense lobbying campaign is underway to defeat Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's ambitious education reform agenda. State lawmakers should follow his lead in standing up for student interests.

Why should anyone outside Louisiana care? The debate taking place in Baton Rouge is echoing across the country. Many states are competing for a slice of federal funds from President Obama's Race to the Top competition. The reformers stress accountability -- saying teachers, schools and principals should be judged according to results. Unions retort that test scores are an unreliable and one-dimensional measure of student success and that it is unfair to judge teachers by how well their students do because other factors, such as a student's home life, affect performance.

We don't discount those arguments, but then neither do Mr. Jindal and other reformers. They are simply asking that test scores be one component of teacher evaluation. Louisiana has one of the country's highest dropout rates, and one-third of its students don't perform at grade level. Yet nearly 99 percent of tenured teachers are, according to information from the state education department, rated satisfactory. Reform legislation would allow student achievement, including test scores, to be considered in teacher and principal evaluations, making it easier to dismiss those who fail repeated reviews, and it would give traditional public schools the autonomy and flexibility enjoyed by charter schools in seeking waivers from state policies.

The Obama administration has sent mixed signals in this debate. It said it would reward bold reforms in the Race to the Top competition, but in its first round it seemed to favor states with union buy-in. That seems to have emboldened state union efforts to block reform. Florida lawmakers were willing to shake up the status quo, but Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, launching an independent run for the U.S. Senate, rewarded unions with a veto. As recently detailed by Education Week, states from Massachusetts to Colorado are seeing unions yank their support for Race to the Top applications in a bid to temper education reform efforts. So pronounced was the trend that Education Secretary Arne Duncan in recent days has pointedly warned against states weakening their overhaul plans.

Collaboration is the ideal outcome, but not if it is built on watered-down reform. Mr. Jindal is right to push for meaningful change.

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