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Jan 27, 2012 6:45 AM by Melinda Deslatte

Analysis: La. education debate mired in rhetoric

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - With nearly two months before lawmakers even consider a single education bill, the rhetorical fight is hot and heavy between Gov. Bobby Jindal and the teacher unions who oppose his plans.

Both sides accuse the other of offensive remarks, demeaning parents or teachers depending on the perspective. Both sides accuse the other of going too far in the rhetorical debate, offering little room to compromise. And both sides are right.

That's their point.

Each side is trying to stake out an advantage with parents, Louisiana residents, state officials, editorial pages and, most importantly, with the lawmakers who will decide whether to back Jindal's sweeping proposals. Each side is hoping its wave of rhetoric is more powerful and more persuasive to either get the plans killed or passed.

Jindal's recommendations include using public tax dollars to pay for private school tuition for children in lower-performing public schools, giving superintendents more sway over hiring and firing decisions, and making it tougher for teachers to gain the job protection known as tenure.

To pitch his plans, Jindal has called nearly anyone who opposes his ideas a supporter of the status quo who is against reform of poor performing school systems.

Never mind that some people may just disagree about what equals reform and how the state should get there.

Specifically about the unions, Jindal has accused union leaders of an elitist mentality and of attacking "anyone who tries to stand in their way."

"For too long these union bureaucrats have believed they know better how to run the schools, they know better how to teach our children than even the parents themselves," Jindal said.

The Republican governor said that some teachers in the current tenure system get job protections simply because they "have been breathing" and that "short of selling drugs in the workplace or beating up one of the business' clients, they can never be fired" once they get tenure.

That's an oversimplification of the tenure system, but it makes for a compelling sound bite when the governor is pitching his proposals.

Michael Walker Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said Jindal is deliberately misleading parents, suggesting that the schools are failing but without explaining that the schools don't have enough resources and financial support to provide a proper learning environment.

"He's preying upon the fear of a parent that 'my child won't get what they need to sustain a lifelong career or vocation,'" Jones said.

However, Jindal's opponents have also made sweeping statements that overgeneralize the complex issues up for debate, the dismal performance of many of Louisiana's public schools and the thousands of students who have been failed by public education over the years.

Defenders of traditional public schools argue that charter schools and private schools pick their students, leaving the most at-risk and needy behind, and that those schools haven't shown proven improvements over traditional public schools but get special treatment even when they get state dollars.

While the assertions are worth review in the ongoing debate and should be considered in detail, the rhetoric put forth by Jindal opponents has far exceeded those arguments.

Joyce Haynes, the head of the Louisiana Association of Educators, called Jindal's ideas "almost like a plantation-like mentality."

Lee Meyer, a member of the Assumption Parish School Board, suggested, "We're going back to segregation, and we're going back quickly."

Most recently, Jindal criticized as outrageous a comment Jones made, according to The Times-Picayune, in which he said parents in poverty "have no clue" what is the right education choice for their child because they don't have all the facts about the financing problems of public schools.

Jindal called the quote offensive. Jones defended his statement.

Nothing in the back-and-forth dispute really did anything to advance informed decision-making for lawmakers weighing ideas that could change the educational course of thousands of students who will determine the future of the state.

Both sides could stand to be less incendiary in the debate when the legislative session begins March 12 and education laws get crafted.

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