Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal touted his state’s school voucher program, currently bogged down by legal fights, as a model for the nation on Tuesday.
“I think there is a moral imperative that it’s not right that only wealthy parents get to decide where their kids go to school,” Jindal told an audience at Washington’s Brookings Institution.
Jindal was invited as the keynote speaker for the debut of a Brookings report ranking a New Orleans district tops in the nation on school choice based on policies like expanded access to charter schools.
But his current push to implement a far-reaching voucher program that offers parents public funding to attend private schools is going through a rough patch. This month a state district judge ruled that it violated the state constitution by using money earmarked for public schools, siding with teachers’ unions who had sued to stop the policy from taking effect. The case goes to the state Supreme Court next, but if the Jindal administration’s appeal fails they will need to find another route to finance the program, which could be a politically difficult affair.
Speaking at Brookings, Jindal defended the legality of the vouchers, saying that the money was still being used to publicly educate students, just not through public schools.
“To me it’s pretty obvious that we don’t fund bricks and mortar, we’re funding students’ education,” he said.
Jindal is positioning himself as a top GOP leader nationally and is often mentioned on the short list of likely 2016 presidential contenders. The governor has called on the party to reach out more to poor and minority voters, though mostly through improved rhetoric. But his speech offered a concrete example of how education policy might fit the bill.
“To oppose school choice is to oppose equal opportunity for poor and disadvantaged students in America,” he said. “What we are putting in motion in Louisiana can be done across the country.”
Jindal and his supporters say that opening up public schools to more competition has reduced the number of failing schools in the state and provides immediate relief to kids trapped in underperforming districts. But critics complain that the latest voucher system doesn’t apply the same accountability standards to the private schools that accept vouchers. Many of the schools willing to accept vouchers are religious and some employ fundamentalist textbooks that suggest man coexisted with dinosaurs, the Loch Ness monster is real, and fire-breathing dragons once roamed the land, among other sketchy claims.
While vouchers are more controversial, many broader reforms Jindal and other Republican governors have put in place requiring greater accountability from schools and teachers are in line with the White House’s own goals. Jindal went out of his way to shower praise on Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan throughout the event. At one point he even joked that he had offered to stop if it got Duncan in trouble with Obama.
This story has been updated.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.