- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2012

As a central piece of his controversial education-reform agenda heads to the state Supreme Court for review, rising Republican star and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on Tuesday unloaded on teachers unions and cast them as the biggest reason American schools continue to wallow in mediocrity.

“There is one entity working hard every day, spending millions of dollars every year, to make sure you never get the opportunity to get your child out of a failing school and into a different school, and that is the teachers union,” Mr. Jindal said during a speech in Washington, given in conjunction with a new report from the Brookings Institution showing that several Louisiana districts are among the best in the nation in offering parents more options and better access to charter and other alternative schools.

The state has also become the latest battleground in a string of fights between school reformers and their foes in organized labor. Mr. Jindal’s landmark education overhaul is now facing opposition not only from unions but has also seen a significant setback in court.

Louisiana’s school voucher system, one of the most ambitious efforts in the U.S. to allow parents to use public money to send their children to private or parochial schools, was ruled unconstitutional by a state judge late last month in a case sparked by a teachers-union lawsuit.

Mr. Jindal’s administration now is appealing that ruling to the state Supreme Court, and the governor said he’s “confident” the panel will rule in his favor.

Mr. Jindal’s counterparts in states such as Indiana and Wisconsin are embroiled in similar clashes, and teachers unions — the largest and perhaps most influential labor groups in the nation — have in recent months seen major successes in beating back reform efforts.

In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to strip teachers of most of their collective bargaining rights has been struck down by a judge. He also had to beat back a union-driven recall election fueled by anger over the effort.

In Indiana, Mr. Daniels’ state schools chief, Tony Bennett, was ousted by voters in favor of a union official after the Hoosier state enacted its own sweeping set of school reforms. Those changes included a major expansion of charter schools and the implementation of the largest voucher system in the nation.

The future of those reforms is now unclear, as Mr. Bennett leaves office in January and Mr. Daniels vacates his post to become president of Purdue University.

Mr. Jindal and others believe unions’ legal challenges in Louisiana and Wisconsin, and the election effort to defeat Mr. Bennett in Indiana, show the groups’ true motives.

“They alone are stopping school choice from occurring all across this country,” Mr. Jindal said. “Teachers unions exist for their own benefit.”

His comments came on the same day new data highlighted how American students continue to lag behind their international peers. A study released Tuesday by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that U.S. fourth-graders rank sixth in reading and 11th in math, trailing countries such as Finland, Russia and Singapore.

Among eighth-graders, U.S. children finished ninth in math and 10th in science, according to the report, which examined the top education systems worldwide.

While reform proponents lay much of the blame for those figures at the feet of teachers unions, labor leaders do acknowledge the need for change, though they break with Mr. Jindal and others on the specifics.

Last week, the American Federation of Teachers laid out its own plan to improve the quality of the nation’s schools. The organization — the second-largest teachers union, behind the National Education Association — came out in favor of a “universal and rigorous” test for would-be teachers, similar to the bar exam all law students must pass.

Such a step would be a dramatic change for the teaching profession in the U.S., and backers of the proposal believe it would result in a better education for students.

“It’s time to do away with a common rite of passage into the teaching profession, whereby newly minted teachers are tossed the keys to their classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they and their students sink or swim. This is unfair to both students and their teachers, who care so much but who want and need to feel competent and confident to teach from their first day on the job,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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