Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, used an education reform talk to offer a searing indictment of teachers unions and tout the success made in his home state by promoting charter schools and a robust scholarship program.
Jindal, speaking at the Brookings Institute on Tuesday, said America's K-12 schools are lagging in the world and "do not provide equal opportunity in education" to children of different income levels. But his strongest criticism was aimed at the teachers unions, which he blamed for standing in the way of progress.
"Were it not for the teachers union Herculean efforts, every low income family would probably have the opportunity to enroll their child in a better performing school," Jindal said. "That's not an opinion, that's a fact."
Jindal did try and separate blame from individual teacher, however.
"Now to be fair, I believe the great majority of teachers in this country have very pure motives," he said. "I've found teachers to be far more giving, compassionate and well-intentioned than the folks who populate most professions."
Teachers unions have traditionally strongly opposed efforts to allow school choice, which would allow parents to choose to send their child to private, parochial, or charter schools and have an allotment of taxpayer funds to follow. That's because public schools have teacher certification standards and are unionized as opposed to the alternatives. The unions also fear too many students choosing to leave the public schools will lead to their closing. And by and large the unions have opposed merit-based pay for teachers, another key part of most school reform proposals.
But Jindal, most Republicans, and some Democrats in favor of sweeping education reform see the unions as working against the interests of the students.
"The ultimate irony here is this – the people who are in charge of our education system, these are people you'd hope or think or want to believe are themselves capable of critical thought, or change, or learning or adapting," he said. "It's not hard. It's simple math – we're losing ground, we must adapt. How can it be that America – the country with the greatest higher educational opportunities in the entire world, the country that houses the universities that help to educate the world – can be so stuck in the Stone Age when it comes to pre-K through 12 education?"
President Barack Obama's Race-to-the-Top school reform program sought to avoid alienating the unions, a powerful Democratic lobbying force, by offering incentives for innovation rather than insisting on reforms. The program won some praise from Jindal, who said education should be a non-partisan issue.
"The old top-down way doesn't work anymore. We must move to a bottom-up organic way of operating and education is the tip of the spear," Jindal said. "I'm not a big fan of the federal government playing such a big role in K-12 education, but to the extent they are going to spend those dollars, I think Race-to-the-Top is a better way to do it than spreading the dollars out evenly."
School reform is best achieved at the state and local level, he added, not led by the federal government.
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Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.