Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal took the stage at a center-left think tank Tuesday to promote school choice and competition as a bipartisan, “consensus issue.”
“Equal opportunity in education should not be a conservative or liberal position, it should be an American position,” said Jindal, who chairs the Republican Governors Association. Since Republicans lost key November elections, Jindal has stepped forward as a party leader, and is frequently named a 2016 presidential contender.
His Washington DC remarks keynoted the release of a Brookings Institution index ranking more than 100 large U.S. districts by choice and competition. The state-run New Orleans Recovery School District ranked No. 1, and was the only district to receive an A. This year, Jindal led Louisiana, one of the worst-performing states academically, into a choice-oriented system based on reforms that doubled New Orleans achievement in five years.
Louisiana now has the largest voucher program in the country, a multitude of charter school authorizers, and an innovative “course choice” program that allows students to take state-paid individual classes such as welding and Chinese for credit outside their assigned schools. Teachers unions have challenged several of these provisions in court.
“I hope what we did in Louisiana can be done across the country,” Jindal said.
Brookings education director Grover Whitehurst introduced and seconded Jindal’s bold support for giving parents the keys to their children’s educations.
“Introducing choice and competition into K-12 education is a path that has not been taken—except by a few places in the country—and we think it is promising,” he said.
Dearth of Choices
A lack of choice has caused U.S. education to deteriorate, Whitehurst said: low high school graduation rates and mediocre academic performance compared to the rest of the world despite the highest education spending outside Luxembourg.
He said policymakers have three choices: Ignore school performance, implement “top-down accountability” like No Child Left Behind, or take a third and optimal option.
“Think about how the rest of our economy works, and think about a system of K-12 education much like our secondary system,” he suggested. “People shop for schools, make choices, and schools prosper or fail depending on their ability to retain and attract students.”
The accompanying report notes that approximately half of parents have chosen their child’s school by considering districts when buying a house, paying private tuition, or homeschooling. Despite this, it concludes, “many more parents wish to exercise choice than are currently able to do so.”
Whitehurst envisioned a system where “schools that are unpopular wither like the restaurant where no one wants to eat.”
“The Education Choice and Competition Index,” uses four metrics to evaluate school systems: The amount of choice, availability of information, ease of choosing a school, and whether public funds follow individual students. The best systems, Whitehurst said, let families “shop to the top.”
Whitehurst fingered four reasons to support school choice. First, “parents overwhelmingly want it.” Second, equity: only wealthy families can currently afford better schools. Third and fourth, he said, “the research is clear” that competition improves school performance and prompts innovation.
Unequal Public Education
Jindal skewered the “nostalgic” view that U.S. education is fair and equal.
“It is completely dishonest to pretend today that America provides equal opportunity in education,” he said. “If you’re a low-income parent residing in an urban area in America, your child probably attends a failing school. You have no options.”
He and Whitehurst agreed that choice-based education is far better for children than top-down accountability schemes popular with Republicans and Democrats alike. That model produces “cookie-cutter schools” that are at best “good enough” but not excellent, Whitehurst said.
“Why wouldn’t we give [students] the choice with their parents’ own tax dollars to pick the better school next door? These kids don’t have time to lose,” Jindal remarked.