By Ed Anderson
Gov. Bobby Jin dal should be commended for tackling an overhaul of K-12 education in the state, but he should not make a proposed widespread voucher sys tem "the centerpiece of the program," U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said Monday.
Landrieu, a Democrat, who has sometimes been at odds with the Republican governor, said that Jindal "really and seriously" must be commended for trying to increase educational standards and put better teachers in the classrooms in a wide-ranging program he will present to the Legislature when its annual law making session begins Monday.
Landrieu said she would be in Baton Rouge during the session to let lawmakers know her feelings on the importance of the legislation.
"I hope the governor does not pull the rug out from under some of the public schools by relying too much on vouchers," she told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.
One part of Jindal's plan pro poses making vouchers available to students in public schools that are graded C, D or F and where the family's income level does not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty level.
Landrieu said that would mean that 378,000 students would be eligible, many more than the available slots available in private and parochial schools. Jindal's education allies in the Legislature said the vouchers make up a small part of the program.
Landrieu said Jindal should look at a more "strategic use of vouchers," possibly using them to help those in the worst schools get out.
"We certainly appreciate the senator's support for many elements of the governor's education reform plan," said Kyle Plot kin, Jindal's communications director.
"In terms of the scholarship expansion, it's important to remember that it's part of a comprehensive plan to improve education. In Florida, where they have implemented a choice plan, only a small percentage of parents have taken advantage of the program. There's no expectation that overnight, hundreds of thousands of students will use this choice, but it's important to give families a choice. Our kids only grow up once, and they shouldn't be told just to wait for a great education."
Landrieu said she favors requiring students who receive the vouchers and attend nonpublic schools to take the same tests as public school students. The legislation would require voucher students to take the state's LEAP test.
Landrieu said she supports proposed changes in the way teachers are paid so that better teachers get more. She said she also agrees with some changes in the teacher tenure laws, but stopped short of saying what those changes should be.
"It is not like a lot of teachers are coming into the system now," Landrieu said. "There needs to be some changes" but they should be crafted with care, she said.
Landrieu said she also favors giving principals more authority to hire and fire teachers, with safeguards against abuse.
Landrieu said Jindal is correct in tackling the issue because studies have shown that students need more than a high school diploma to get decent jobs. "He (Jindal) understands the importance of the issue," she said.
"For every 100 white (Louisiana) students who show up in kindergarten, only 14 percent of them graduate" from colleges or universities with degrees, she said.
The numbers are lower for minorities, she said, with 7 percent of the state's African-Americans going on to get college degrees and 12 percent of its Hispanic students receiving college degrees.
With these graduation rates, Landrieu said, "we can't win. We have to insist on excellence and we are not doing it. It is our imperative."