Jindal touts vouchers as RSD schools get high marks

Gov. Bobby Jindal touted his embattled school voucher program Tuesday with a Washington, D.C.-based, pro-school choice think tank that had named the Louisiana Recovery School District as the nation’s best for educational “choice and competition.”

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution awarded its only “A” letter grade to the Recovery School District — made up of traditional and charter schools in the New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport areas — for the combination of school voucher scholarships, charter schools, online education and affordable private schools in the regions, but mostly in New Orleans.

The 2012 Education Choice and Competition Index also rated Orleans Parish schools at sixth nationally, after New York City, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Houston and the RSD.

As the keynote speaker for the release of the report, Jindal praised his school voucher, also called scholarship, program that became law this summer and criticized teacher unions.

“The United States of America does not provide, does not provide, equal opportunity in education,” Jindal said.

“If you’re a low-income parent residing in an urban area of America, there’s more likely than not your child is attending a failing school,” Jindal said. “Unless you’re fortunate enough to live in New Orleans, Milwaukee or Cleveland, you have no options or recourse.”

The teachers’ unions are the “one entity” making a “herculean effort,” Jindal said, and spending “millions of dollars every year to make sure you don’t ever get the opportunity to get your child out of a failing school and into a different school.”

Jindal’s school voucher program that allows taxpayer funds to send children to private schools was partially shot down in court last month under the grounds that the program was unconstitutionally financed.

However, the governor reiterated his plans to appeal. The court ruling also could allow for the voucher program to be funded with state general fund dollars outside of the state’s public school funding formula, called the Minimum Foundation Program.

“We’re taking our fight to the state Supreme Court. I’m confident we’ll prevail,” Jindal said, later adding, “We’ve got to put reform into the system, not on top of it.”

Critics allege the voucher program takes away dollars from already struggling public schools only to put the funds toward private schools that are not subject to the same accountability levels.

The voucher program also has faced criticism because many of the participating schools are religious-based institutions, some of which are fledgling schools that openly oppose evolution and instead teach creationism.

The Recovery School District was created after Hurricane Katrina under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco to take over failing schools in the New Orleans area and to transition many of them into charter schools, which are run by nongovernmental boards using taxpayer funds.

Jindal’s voucher program was started on a pilot basis in 2008 to give parents options beyond the “incremental progress” of public schools, Jindal said. This year the program spread statewide as the governor’s signature legislative package.

Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy that led the report, said the RSD “has most, if not all, of the desirable characteristics.”

School districts were scored on several variables but that it essentially came down to four measures:

Offering lots of choice through charter schools, voucher programs, virtual learning, affordable private schools and more.

Providing good information to help parents compare and shop around.

Setting up an easy “architecture” for parents to navigate, transfer and apply, ideally through a “common application.”

Ensuring that the taxpayer funds follow the students into the schools and courses of their choosing.

The RSD and Orleans Parish schools should still do a better job though of showing individual school performance gains, data on teachers and principals, and the popularity of schools based on parental preference, according to the report.

“It is an honor to be recognized by such as reputable organization,’’ RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard said in an interview later Tuesday.

While Dobard said he had not delved into the survey deeply enough to determine what areas the RSD needs to strengthen, the goal is to continue to improve. “We want to make sure that we are making options for families that are not determined by ZIP code,’’ Dobard said.

When Jindal took questions, he said he actually agrees with President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on their support of charter schools and teacher accountability.

But Jindal argued that they do not go far enough and that they should embrace school vouchers more.

Jindal and Obama agree on moving away from the bureaucratic “No Child Left Behind” policies of former President George W. Bush.

Sara Pagones of The Advocate’s New Orleans bureau contributed to this report.