WASHINGTON -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) took to the nation's capital on Tuesday to make the case for school vouchers.
"To oppose school choice is to put the wishes of the adults who control the status quo ahead of the needs of our children," Jindal said. "To oppose school choice is to oppose equal opportunity."
As the Republican Party tries to reconnect with voters, and as Republican state legislators try to expand school voucher programs, Jindal, a rising GOP star who heads the Republican Governors Association, is driving his points on education and pro-market reforms with strong language. School vouchers use taxpayer money to pay for students to attend private schools, but there is limited evidence of their success. Under Jindal, Louisiana expanded its voucher system dramatically, but a court recently struck down the program.
"We're taking our fight to the state Supreme Court, and I'm confident that we'll prevail," Jindal said at a Brookings Institution event on school choice. "It's clearly legal and clearly the intent is that we fund children's education and not bricks and mortars," he added in response to a question from The Huffington Post.
Jindal defended vouchers without once using the oft-toxic term, instead calling them scholarships, or putting them under the broader umbrella of school choice. "It is my sincere hope that what we are now putting in motion in Louisiana can be done across the country," Jindal said. "I believe we've got an economic and a moral imperative to provide school choice and a quality education to every child, every student in America."
Jindal made the case for making vouchers bipartisan. "I do not accept the notion that equal opportunity in public education should be a partisan issue," Jindal said. Vouchers have been a third-rail policy among liberals, causing the Obama administration to do rhetorical summersaults. They're controversial among liberals because they funnel tax dollars to private institutions -- often, parochial schools that teach religion. In Louisiana, the private schools accepting voucher money have been found to teach about both creationism and the existence of the mythical Loch Ness monster.
Echoing the rhetoric of the bipartisan movement that's known as education reform, Jindal sharply criticized the quality of public education in America. Jindal also decried teachers unions, saying they spend millions trying to make sure kids in failing schools have no alternatives.
"It is completely dishonest to pretend today that America provides equal opportunity in education. We do not. And if you say that we do, you are lying," Jindal said. "If you are a low-income parent residing in an urban area in America, it is more likely than not your child attends a failing school. And, unless you are fortunate enough to live in New Orleans, or Milwaukee, or Cleveland, you have no options, no recourse. You do not have the resources to enroll your child in a non-public school that is performing well, and you do not have the resources to move your family to an area with higher performing public schools. This is fact."
Vouchers are expanding nationally, despite legal contests in places like Louisiana and Indiana. Robert Enlow, who heads the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation, said over the last two years, 15 states have passed 27 voucher-like bills. Currently, Tennessee and Texas are trying to do the same. "You're seeing an increase of charter school support, the vast majority of kids in urban areas getting more educational choices," Enlow said.
Jindal said private schools in and near New Orleans that accepted vouchers saw more growth in student proficiency rates recently than schools statewide. (Proficiency rates are rarely reliable, since they measure two different groups of students.) Jindal also asserted that the vouchers serve all students. "It's the money of a grandmother who wants to make sure her special education grandbaby gets the education she needs," he said.
But according to public records, several private schools that opened their doors to voucher students with special needs had no services for such students. For example, the St. Angela Merici school's application indicated it had no services for students with autism, mental disabilities or learning disabilities.
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