|Louisiana Education Reform: Making Government Work “Public Service” Once More|
By Troy Senik
Monday, December 17 2012
Underneath the fights that have raged in recent years over the future of public employment – from right-to-work laws to education reform to collective bargaining – is a deeper question about the nature of modern government: Is government employment still synonymous with “public service”?
That this question even arises owes to fundamental discrepancies between establishing the value of workers in the public sector and the private sector.
Employers in the private economy make personnel decisions on the basis of a rather straightforward calculus: Does the benefit arising from an employee’s performance trump the cost of his salary and benefits? If yes, you’re set. If no, next candidate, please.
It’s considerably more complicated when the state is involved. For one thing, government hires people with your money, not its own – and there’s no dollar worth less than someone else’s. Muddying the process even further, elected officials are often dependent on the support of public-sector unions to stay in office.
What do you suppose happens when those same officials end up sitting across the negotiating table from public employees to hammer out wage and benefit rates? The only party with a vested interest in keeping costs under control – the taxpayer – doesn’t have a seat at the table.
Compounding these problems is the fact that government often possesses a monopoly on the services it provides. No matter how bad the service you receive at the DMV, there’s nowhere else you can go to get a driver’s license. In public schools, the situation is only marginally better. Sure, you can opt out of the system by placing your children in private education – but you’ll still be on the hook for the taxes that underwrite the failed public system in addition to the often-stratospheric tuition of a private school.
Think about this trend for more than a second, and an obvious solution suggests itself: Decouple the traditional bond between public financing of goods and public provision of goods.
It’s all well and good, for example, for government to assert that there’s a public interest in making sure that every child gets a quality education. That’s sufficient justification for the state to collect tax money to provide for the schooling of the indigent. But it doesn’t logically follow that the state should be involved in the administration of schools.
In fact, it suggests just the opposite. In government-run schools, a teacher’s best shot at getting a raise is using union power to lobby lawmakers for more money. The benefit of actually improving the life of a student? Nothing more than gratitude. For the many teachers who do the work out of conviction, that’s enough. But good intentions do not a viable system make.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Louisiana, where even the liberal Center for American Progress has concluded that schools with the highest rate of spending per student are also among those with the lowest test scores. Last year, when the state conducted its first-ever comprehensive grading of public education, the results were appalling: 44 percent of the Pelican State’s schools received a grade of D or F. Nearly half of the state’s campuses were subjecting students to abject failure.
Recognizing the untenability of the situation, Governor Bobby Jindal snapped into action. Following the lead of New Orleans, where the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina midwifed a boom in charter schools (now attended by more than 60 percent of Crescent City students), the governor realized that increased choice could breed improving performance. As Jindal told an audience at the Brookings Institution earlier this month, "Since 2007, the last five years alone, the percentage of students in New Orleans that are reading and doing math at grade level has more than doubled."
As a result, Jindal lent his support – and ultimately his signature – to a passage of far-reaching education reforms that were passed into law in April. Under the new policies, teachers have to wait double as long to earn tenure – and then can only do so after passing strict performance reviews. The linkage between seniority and immunity from layoffs was severed. The process for opening new charter schools was streamlined. And poor children caught in the state’s worst schools – a number that totals almost 400,000 – were given the opportunity to use vouchers to attend a school of their choice (5,600 vouchers were made available for the first year of the program – 10,300 applications were received).
Jindal was reestablishing the link between government employment and “public service.” For a teacher to succeed in a reformed Louisiana, they now have to be delivering value to students and parents.
Unsurprisingly, this was too much to bear for the state’s union establishment – which, fortunately for Jindal, is relatively weak compared to the behemoths in states like California and Pennsylvania. After a wave of protests modeled on union hostility to Scott Walker’s reforms in Wisconsin failed to halt the bill’s passage, labor got increasingly desperate. They filed lawsuits. They launched an abortive attempt to recall Jindal. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers even accused the Louisiana Black Alliance for Education Options – a group dedicated to promoting school choice for low-income black families – of supporting a “pro KKK agenda.”
Sadly, the reactionaries won a judicial victory in November when a state district judge in Baton Rouge ruled against the voucher program on the basis of an arcane law about funding formulas, offering the curious observation that the voucher program "ignores the good of the individual students who are left behind in those schools deemed underperforming." Such is the equality of the statist – misery for all is to be preferred to success for some.
Also curious: the fact that the judge’s 39-page opinion was delivered only hours after the end of a two-day trial. Some decisions, we can assume, are too important to countenance argument over.
Jindal and supporters of school choice throughout Louisiana and the nation now have to await a ruling from the Louisiana Supreme Court to see whether or not the state’s poorest students will have a lifeline yanked from their hands by the unions that claim to exist for their benefit.
Should the voucher program be upheld, justice will be done. Should it fall on the financing technicality, lawmakers should immediately begin reconstructing it to withstand judicial scrutiny. This could end up being the work of years. But that sacrifice of time is minor compared to a entire life spent suffering the consequences of an insufficient education. Avoiding that outcome would provide a clear demonstration of what “public service” really looks like.
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