State of the Louisiana Classroom
This week, Governor Bobby Jindal signed a sweeping school voucher bill that shifts massive tax dollars to private schools – many of which are under construction, or unabashedly religious. Dr. G. Pearson Cross, assistant professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, sits down with Welton to take a look at the beginning of the end of public education in Louisiana – as well as the process that made it possible, and the career prospects this might open up for Jindal.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Pearson Cross[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio, everyone. I’m Welton Gaddy.
As we’ve followed the story of the state of Louisiana’s allowing creationist teaching materials in the public high school science classroom, and valiant efforts to push back against that kind of mis-education, an even bigger storm was brewing. It wouldn’t be overstating the matter to say that Louisiana’s Republican-controlled legislature, with the – I guess some would say, “cooperation” of Republican governor Bobby Jindal, I might say the “tyrannization” of the governor – has been working toward all but privatizing public education. A voucher program of unprecedented breadth has just been signed by the governor, and this past Thursday afternoon, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers filed, in court, a challenge to the governor’s program and the legislation that was passed.
Fortunately, we have Pearson Cross, who has been on our show once before, to talk about the possible implications of what’s going on there. Pearson is Head of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Pearson, welcome back to State of Belief Radio![DR. G. PEARSON CROSS, GUEST]: Thanks Welton, it’s good to be here. [WG]: There is so much wrong with Louisiana’s School Voucher Program. I mean, classrooms that don’t exist yet; bible-based science, math and other courses; no structure for oversight… Where would you like to begin? [PC]: Well, you know, this is pretty radical, and this is big stuff. And I keep telling people that this is, really, I mean – The Wall Street Journal called it “Jindal’s moon shot” – and it really was; and he really got almost everything that he wanted through this session as, frankly, I sat around and other people did, and watched with our jaws agape at the speed and execution of the legislative agenda. It was amazing. [WG]: I talked with people who were in Austin for the meeting and were standing on the sides watching what was happening, and they spoke of governor Jindal pulling legislators out of the chamber and talking to them, threatening them about their political futures. I mean, he really did play hardball on this one, didn’t he, Pearson? [PC]: Yes. He absolutely did. And he played the – now, of course he has people who do that for him – but really, the message was sent very early on: there was a person who didn’t vote the way they were expected or required to vote, and they immediately lost their – they were vice chair of a committee; there was the other person who was the head of Elderly Affairs who was speaking up and saying that she didn’t think it was a great idea to move that location at that department, and she was actually fired, as I understand it, before she finished speaking! And she went home, and didn’t pick up her phone until the next day so she wouldn’t get the news. So that sends a message, and the message is basically: if you’re on the governor’s team, you better play ball – or you’re gone. [WG]: What else do you find most disturbing about the program itself? [PC]: What’s disturbing to me is that – well, there are a number of things that are very disturbing, and we’re going to have to see; but one of the things that’s disturbing is that it does take money out of K-12 public education. And in fact, the chairperson of the committee had kind of a tirade after the vote was over and all was said and done, accusing the Jindal administration of lying to him about its effect on local school finances – because apparently, the state distributes funds through something that’s called the Minimum Foundation Program, and the state puts in some money and the locality puts in some money, and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee had been told that, in fact, the local contribution would remain, and nothing about local dollars would be charged or taken. That’s not really true, because it later turns out – in the fine print – that the local contribution to the MFP formula is in fact subtracted from the other money that the state gives to the localities to run their school systems. So, you know, local school systems are losing the MFP formula – it’s about $8500 – and they’re also going to lose the percentage of local taxes that they paid for that particular student as well. [WG]: And am I correct – and I may not be, but – isn’t there some program also being put in place to allow tax-deductible gifts to those who want to support vouchers? [PC]: Yeah, that’s really incredible, frankly, and no one’s been able to explain this to me effectively, and in fact I even asked somebody who was on the legislative committee in the past, and he said: “No, I don’t get it either.” Basically, if you decide that you want to contribute to providing money for vouchers, you can put up, really, I think almost any amount of money – and the state will, after a year, give you back 95% of your money out of the general fund. In the meantime, your money is theoretically used to provide a voucher for a student to go to a parochial or other private school. So the whole system – I just can’t figure it out, how it all works – but clearly, the state is on the hook for that money, ultimately, and that’s money that at the end of the day is going to come out of the money that goes to public schools. [WG]: And if there was any question about motivation on this – and I know that it’s draped in helping poor students and all of those kinds of things – but governor Jindal was very transparent, I know you’re aware of this, he signed the legislation in a Roman Catholic church! [PC]: Yeah. You know, one of the really funny things – and I don’t know if you happened to see this, Welton – was that they were talking about which schools they were going to accept vouchers from, and apparently a school that was Muslim-based had, in fact, applied to be part of this voucher program. And it created a huge uproar on the Louisiana floor of the House, where people were saying: “I don’t want public money going to teach people how to be, you know, follow the religion of Islam!” But it revealed the duplicity of all this: like, so, it’s OK to do it with Christianity, but it’s not OK to do it with Islam – but you can’t really play that game. [WG]: Yeah. As a matter of fact, to make it a little more ironic – and I don’t know whether someone just said this so it would sound more dramatic or not – but one of the legislators was quoted saying he didn’t want state money going for religious education – but it was only in the school teaching Islam that that happens. [PC]: Right, right, because, you know, Christianity is so much a part of the fabric of this society, that people almost don’t even think that; or if they do think about it, they think: “Well, that’s a good thing.” So it’s a product of an unreflective attitude in general, but also just this kind of natural predisposition to support the majority religion, specifically, and not see that there’s a constitutional problem with that, as well. [WG]: My guest is Pearson Cross, Head of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. We’re talking about the far-reaching new school voucher program just approved in Louisiana – and just challenged in Louisiana, in court, by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. Listeners, I want you to understand we’re talking about 3.4 billion dollars, billion dollars, going into private education.
Pearson, how do you do that and not have a more comprehensive process to all of this? I mean, what is going to be the impact on Louisiana’s public schools?[PC]: Well, if it were all going to happen – the 3.4 billion that you’re talking about, and you know that the students that are eligible for the vouchers constitute about 60% of all Louisiana public school students, those going to, unfortunately, C-, D- and F-rated institutions – it would completely collapse in an enormous mess. The only thing that’s going to save that from happening – just this nightmare of movement – is that, currently, I think there are around 9 or 10 thousand openings that are actually being offered for the voucher program; and so the only thing that’s actually saving this from being a horrendous problem is that the number of students that are going to be allowed to move through openings in currently-existing charter and private and parochial schools is so limited right now – but that may change with some of the changes, also, that Jindal pushed through to charter schools. [WG]: Well, I understand the superintendent John White, superintendent of education, has said that parents are best qualified to decide which school is most suitable for their kids – implying that there’s no role for government in even evaluating the motley recipients of funding that can go as high as $8000 per student. [PC]: Yeah, this is just crazy – the idea that we would just, somehow, just cede state tax dollars to parents to spend as they see fit for their child’s education without paying any attention to assessment, to standards – I mean, what do you say to some parent who says: “Well, I want to take my child out of a school that’s performing at the C level and put him in an untried charter where they’re all going to be in the gym and spend, you know, 3 sessions a day singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” I don’t know. I mean, that parent may think that they’re getting a better educational bargain. They may be hanging out with their friends – but it would be pretty hard to demonstrate it from an empirical standpoint. [WG]: Yeah, and I would think anybody would find it difficult to see that as education rather than indoctrination, I think. And this comes back to the whole matter of standards. I mean, there are no standards related to the places of education, and there are no standards related to the teachers. Isn’t that right? [PC]: That’s correct. And the Jindal administration has been very active in making sure that whatever movements in the legislature – and there were some in the legislature, to try to make sure that these schools that are offering vouchers and so on had to abide by school state standards, had to have accredited teachers, and all those kinds of things – and those were all tossed out. Those never made it, they got squished. [WG]: Well, I’m glad you’re a political scientist, and so you can explain this. Is this going to help governor Jindal position himself for a vice-presidential role in the Romney administration? [PC]: Absolutely. With this passage of this education I would say that governor Jindal – first thing, put himself up in the top five for the vice president spot. There’s no doubt about it. He has passed the far right’s dream for education here in Louisiana – and he’s done it at a time when no one else could do it. This establishes his conservative bona fides beyond a shadow of a doubt, and in some sense rescues him a little bit from his previous kind of disastrous entry on the national stage with his response to the Obama State of the Union Address. So he has really resuscitated his standing. If he doesn’t get the vice-presidency out of this, if Romney should be elected, I would very much expect to see Bobby Jindal as Secretary of Education or his other expertise area, health. Health and Welfare, that’s where he’d go, and one can only imagine what would happen at Health and Welfare, I shudder to think, but, you know. [WG]: I mean, if you made him Secretary of Education – that would be like putting the fox in the hen house. [PC]: Well, we’ve seen this before. Remember when Ronald Reagan put James Watt in as Secretary of the Interior… [WG]: That’s right. [PC]: I mean, there’s a real sense that one of the ways you undermine a government that you don’t trust is by making sure that the stewards of that government are opposed to the fundamental mission. [WG]: OK, and that brings to the surface the fact that our founding fathers said that absolutely necessary in a vibrant democracy is quality public education available for everybody. Pearson, I mean we’re looking at something that is laughable – but also so serious that it’s pitiable. What would it take – I mean, there’s no question; we have serious, serious problems with the public education system in Louisiana, as do many others – what would work, I mean, I think anything would work better, but – what would work better than this kind of voucher charter school approach? [PC]: Well, you know, in the school systems that have really worked, and in other countries we’ve seen this, there are a few things that work. You know, Jindal keeps saying that the most important thing for an education is a really well-qualified teacher in every classroom; and you know, that’s very much true, the controllable element. What they do in some other countries and other jurisdictions is they make “teacher” a high-status job; they only allow people to be teachers if they graduate in the top 10% of college graduates as opposed to the bottom quarter, something where most education graduates come. They reward the teachers well; they keep the class sizes down; they give these good teachers lots and lots of freedom.
The other thing they do is they pay attention. Most other countries with high educational outcomes pay attention to the kind of corollary attitudes like: child’s health; child’s welfare; the home environment. Is there violence in the home environment? Is it a stable home environment? Because you can do everything you want on the delivery service end of education, but if that kid is going home to a house without a book in it, where there’s a violent attitude, or there’s a complete disregard for that child’s welfare – that’s not a recipe for learning.[WG]: Pearson, are the people of Louisiana going to rise up and say: “This just can’t go”? Or are they going to say: “Well, that’s the governor’s will; it’s done?” [PC]: Currently, I would say that it’s the later. Sadly, I think that most people, they’re drinking the kool-aid and they’re believing that the governor’s reform proposals – I mean, it’s pretty easy to demonize education in Louisiana, and along with it the hard-working people who are doing their best on the front lines every day – and people will believe just about anything about public education. Nobody has a good word to say about it, and so they’ve been sold a bill of goods, and they think that the governor is doing the right thing. [WG]: Honest answer. How do you stay hopeful? [PC]: You know, you’ve got to take the long view; that’s the only thing you can do, I think, at this point. [WG]: I can’t see that far. [PC]: Well, you know, you just do what you can. You have to get in there and try to vote, and try to organize, and try to make it better in your area. Do what you can. I don’t know, other than that. [WG]: Pearson Cross is head of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. He is a rational, sane voice in Louisiana where sometimes that voice is hard to find – and I know the man is doing his best in educating students at the university in which he teaches, and in other ways trying to help the people of Louisiana see what’s going on before their eyes, and help them understand what that’s going to mean for public education, and the economy as well as the politics of Louisiana.
Pearson, it’s always good to talk with you. I really appreciate you coming on and giving us an up-close picture of what’s happening. Thanks for being with us again on State of Belief Radio.[PC]: Thanks Welton. Always a pleasure.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.
Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.