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Education reform proposals promise great improvement

Some of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s announced education initiatives smack so much of common sense one wonders why they haven’t been done before (or were discontinued decades ago). Others portend potential contentious policy battles. Either way, from the broad outlines he presented yesterday, they seem bound to improve elementary and secondary education in Louisiana.

Jindal’s education legislative agenda addresses four areas. The first deals with charter school regulation. So far, the move to allow these institutions which operate much like state-run schools except with fewer regulations has turned out to be a success, with outcomes improvement outpacing that of government schools especially in the cases where charters took over academically unacceptable institutions. Jindal wants to increase regulation at the low end of these kinds of schools by having them vetted by the national professional association of them and hopefully at the high end making them perform even better by allowing faith-based organizations to organize and run charter schools.

The last matter will draw opposition from the usual anti-religion zealots but these political or constitutional matters should not stand in the way of this proposal’s passage. So long as religion is not advocated mandatorily in the classroom, it should not matter who runs the school. Another issue, allowing simple majorities rather than two-thirds votes of teachers to request a move of their school into charter status should prove even more controversial, as the education establishment and teachers’ unions historically have fought charter schools because they take resources and power out of the hands of the former and the latter cannot protect mediocre performers in exchange for their support in unions’ quest to redistribute resources from taxpayers to their members.

A second is in minor tweaking to teacher assessment. While competency testing and additional forms of accountability measuring for teachers are badly needed in Louisiana education and would do more than any other reform to improve schooling, this very small step to improve the manner of assessment is positive.

Third, Jindal will stump for broader authority to remove disruptive students from the classroom. The tolerated presence of such students is a major problem in low-performing schools in that acting up interferes with learning by students who want education. Less coddling may draw opposition from the education establishment which fears obnoxious parents berating them for acting firmly against their overindulged and/or unsupervised children, but at least they would have the law on their side now.

In addition, the plan sensibly argues for alternative instruction of these suspended students. Rather than have them sit out with most neglecting studies, they would be put into after-school or Saturday learning situations in order to allow them to keep up with their studies but in an environment where they can’t hold others’ learning hostage. The hangup here will be this likely will cost more money and the annual automatic Minimum Foundation Program funding is not designed to incorpoarte something like this. Additional appropriation for these kinds of programs may be necessary, but these are tight budgetary times. Yet if implemented, these ideas could make a dent in the dropout rates that plague state education.

Finally, another big part of the dropout tendency, truancy, Jindal addresses also. Laws would be strengthened to put more of the onus for discouraging this activity on parents. They would be notified immediately of absences, extant fines that can be levied on parents for repeated truancy would be increased, and alternative penalties are proposed to be added. Sensibly, in the case of minors society holds parents responsible for many of their actions and truancy should be no exception. If parents face sanctions for their children’s bad behavior, it should prompt them to put greater effort into better parenting to prevent it; one suggestion is that mandatory parenting classes be an option for remediation.

Jindal smartly recognizes that mindless dispersal of more money to administrators and teachers to improve education has diminishing returns, a point probably largely reached in Louisiana. The focus must be on the philosophy and procedures to produce superior learning which means wringing out of the system the attitude that self-actualization means more than learning facts and how to reason, or the difference between gearing the system towards a lowest common denominator and challenging all to rise up – even if that means in the case of some to use an iron fist in a velvet glove to motivate them. If the legislation that accompanies this broad outline adheres to this thinking and passes, in the coming years Louisiana will reap significant benefits.

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