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Unions criticize Jindal, defend poor educational outcomes

The most controversial aspect of the upcoming special session of the Louisiana Legislature is (by relative standards) a paltry $20 million on allowing a 50 percent tax deduction for up to $5,000 in private school tuition parents pay per child. Predictably, it has drawn opposition from the biggest impediments from improving education in the state, teachers’ unions.

One the on hand, you can’t blame these troglodytes for reacting predictably according to their essences. Teachers’ unions don’t care about educating children and they don’t care how well it’s done, because all they do care about is transferring as much taxpayer money to their members as possible while making their members’ jobs as easy as possible, regardless of the damage they do to the educational system.

But on the other hand, far too much is at stake to allow these antediluvian attitudes to drive public policy. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s idea breaks from them, even in just a minor way, by making more likely the one thing these organizations fear: actual competition. By making it easier for families to send children (or to home school them) outside of the public school monopoly, the marketplace will force improvement on public schools in order for them to continue to receive the lavish government largesse they currently get.

This is idea that there will have to be more competence coming from teachers provokes two reactions from unions. One is hysteria: Jindal’s plan is just a small, diluted step in the direction of greater competition. Think about it: at the ceiling and maximum state tax rate the amount of benefit to a family is only $150 per child which does not provide a whole lot of incentive to abandon public schools. Nor does it in any way, as one wild-eyed union head alleged, shift focus away from public to private schools: no extra money is going to non-public schools, while public schools are getting funded at record levels – and Jindal is even proposing a raise which (naturally) unions say is too little.

Yet unions react as if this is doomsday because they know it inevitably will lead to more comprehensive measures to set up competition, and they know two things then must happen: either teachers (and their schools) will have to do a more competent job of teaching, meaning better preparation and greater effort on their part, or private schools, who have the better teachers precisely because of competition, will begin to suck away students and cost public school teachers their jobs.

This leads to the second reaction, disavowal that the problem exists in the first place of lower quality instruction which could be improved through competition. Union bosses sniff that poor student achievement in Louisiana is not a result of that, when in fact statistics from an anti-voucher organization show otherwise.

Among the categories in its “Quality Counts” annual survey, Education Week magazine, which put Louisiana 47th among the states in student achievement, lists standards and accountability on which the state ranks second, the teaching profession (state efforts to attract, develop, and deploy talent in education) on which the state ranks fifth, and school finance which ranks in the middle at 25th. So it seems Louisiana is near the top in terms of structures to bring success, and at least is adequately funded. So if the elements for success are there already provided by the state yet achievement is so low, a big part of the problem is inability to take those resources and creating student achievement – in other words, the schools and the teachers themselves. (Because it does well in some categories, overall the magazine ranks Louisiana 21st.)

Ironically, not only should public schools welcome this initiative, they ought to demand things way beyond this like full-blown vouchers. One facile complaint the educational establishment often makes is that more talented students have better access to private schools, leaving disproportionately worse students in public schools which gets reflected in ratings and spreads resources thinner. But if a voucher system was implemented, poorer families who tend to have lower-achieving children would have improved access to private schools, thus correcting the “imbalance” the educational establishment claims exists.

Apparently, more than sufficient resources and pretty good pay aren’t lighting a fire under Louisiana public schools to do a better job. There’s no way the introduction of competition can make the situation worse, regardless what defenders of a broken system bleat.

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