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Thriving economy, school choice fuel Bobby Jindal agenda in Louisiana

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. — Republican Bobby Jindal postulates that when year after year more people move to Louisiana than leave it, he's probably doing something right as governor.

Of all the advances his state made since his election as chief executive six years ago, that is the one statistic that tickles him the most.

"For 20 years, more people left than came here, but for the last six years, the opposite has been happening," he said over dinner recently at the governor's residence.

The reason for the influx of new residents is that the Republican governor and oft-mentioned presidential contender has turned around the economy in general, the energy industry in particular, the quality of public education, and the availability of jobs while lessening the tax burden on individuals and business. That's the heart of his local story.

What Mr. Jindal, 43, is best known for nationally is revolutionizing the time-honored conservative concept of education vouchers, often called school choice.

Public-school vouchers were the key education reform that the Reagan administration pushed for and that Republican governors in Wisconsin and elsewhere tried to introduce over the objections of public-school teachers and principals unions in the 1980s and 1990s.

But in the early 2000s, school choice took a back seat to other education-reform efforts, such as the No Child Left Behind law championed by President George W. Bush and other experiments tested by philanthropist billionaires such as Bill Gates and Michael R. Bloomberg.

Despite continued opposition from teachers unions, Mr. Jindal revived the school-choice debate a few years back and successfully got enacted in Louisiana what may be the broadest expansion of vouchers in years, enabling students to take money normally reserved for public schools and spend it instead on an education at a charter or private school of their choice.

The Jindal system has expanded non-government-run schools in several ways. It removed the cap on the number of charter schools, which are privately run public schools that have greater autonomy and whose teachers aren't unionized. And it expanded private-school vouchers statewide.

It also allows students access to more courses, no matter what neighborhood they happen to live in.

Formerly, students generally got state funding on a per-pupil basis to attend one school full time. If the school they attend didn't have the courses they needed, they were out of luck. The new law created a new vehicle giving access to all students at public and private schools to courses they need or want, but only certain students get state funding. The Jindal administration says that enrollment in the "Course Choice" program will expand from 2,400 in 2013-14 to a projected 9,600 by 2014-15.

Mr. Jindal met more resistance than expected initially because, critics say, he failed to consult with the school districts before putting the final touches on his system. Whether that was a managerial mistake or a practical route to bypass resistance from the education establishment is open to interpretation.

Like private and parochial schools, charters schools generally aren't handcuffed by union rules that make it too time-consuming and expensive to fire incompetent teachers and administrators.

Mr. Jindal is in a legal fight over his refusal to implement the Common Core national academic standards that he once backed. Critics of Common Core said from the start that it violated the 10th Amendment to the Constitution and federalized what constitutionally are the education prerogatives of state and local governments. Mr. Jindal now argues that the federal government has gotten too involved in writing the standards. That aligns him with conservative constitutionalists on the issue.

The Jindal administration also won its legal battle with President Obama's Justice Department's attempt to cripple the school-voucher program.

Another major plus for his record as a skilled manager is the rise in creditworthiness of his state government.

Since Mr. Jindal took office, the three major credit-rating firms in America — Fitch Ratings, Moody's Investor Service and Standard & Poor's Financial Services Co. — have given Louisiana a total of eight upgrades. This came at a time when one of the rating services, Standard & Poor's, lowered its U.S. creditworthiness assessment for the first time in history.

That means the U.S. government has to dig deeper into its already staggering national debt to pay the extra interest lenders demand in light of the lowered ratings.

In May 2011, S&P elated the Jindal administration and the GOP-dominated legislature by raising the likelihood of Louisiana's being able to repay its general obligation debt to AA status from its AA-grade.

So Louisiana finds itself happily in the exact opposite situation as the U.S. Treasury. The state's government has to dig less deeply into its pool of taxes collected from businesses and workers' earnings to pay a lower interest rate to lenders. Why? Because they see a better likelihood of getting their money back, based on the S&P rating for Louisiana.

"That was the first AA rating from Standard & Poor's for Louisiana from since 1984," Mr. Jindal said. He essentially repeated the interpretation he made in 2011. "The higher credit rating shows that the business world sees what we're doing to expand and diversify our economy — while we continue making government more fiscally responsible."

S&P noted another major achievement under Mr. Jindal — an unemployment rate lower than the national average.

"We expect the state to continue to address its structural challenges, such as its underfunded pension systems, and we anticipate that it will likely continue to make expenditure cuts as needed to ensure balanced operations," S&P analysts said at the time.

"This state has the lowest unemployment in the South," he said. He's right, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which in June reported Louisiana at 5 percent unemployment, followed by Texas at 5.1 percent. Most of the other Southern states fell in the 6 percent to 7 percent range.

In January, Mr. Jindal's state set the lowest unemployment rate since September 2008, when Mr. Jindal had been in office only a few months. He also takes credit for getting the legislature to enact what he says is the largest-ever income-tax rate reduction in the state.

He slashed $9 billion (26 percent of spending) from the state budget and cut the state's payroll by more than 28,000 jobs.

One of his boldest and most controversial achievements is turning a government-run health care system into a partnership with private-sector providers. He was later able to claim that the state's former charity (now privatized) hospital cost $52 million less than originally budgeted.

He noted the state achieved a record of a little more than 2 million people employed, out of a total population of 4.6 million.

He argued that a leaner, more efficient, less-costly state government is another inducement for people living and working in other states to come stay in Louisiana.

To the bitter consternation of environmentalists and even some conservatives, the governor signed a bill that protected the oil and gas industry from exposure to civil damages in lawsuits, including BP PLC's liability for billions of dollars in unsettled claims resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The energy industry's revival in Louisiana, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, has helped fuel the state's economic growth, the industry says.

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