From education reform to presidential politics, Bobby Jindal’s playbook owes a lot to Buddy Roemer.
| Photo Illustration by Jason Roy
Comparing the two is easy. But first we need to recognize a bold reality and put it aside.
Buddy Roemer took office as governor as a Democrat in 1988 and then switched to the GOP before losing a second term. Now he has no party affiliation as part of his — COUGH! — strategy to become the 45th president of the United States.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, who assumed office in 2008, is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. Though he’ll likely run for president someday, Jindal is not running right now. Not in the traditional sense, at least.
That aside, Jindal and Roemer are like the Doublemint Twins of Louisiana politics. Both are intensely serious, Ivy League-educated reformers who attracted large coteries of devoted followers on their way into office. In fact, Jindal heard many “you’re-just-like-him” comments when he ran for governor.
As the current presidential cycle and Jindal’s push for education reform near their respective peaks, the governor is retracing steps originally trod, with considerably less finesse, by Roemer. In the long run, Jindal may end up accomplishing, on more than one level, what Roemer once sought.
In Great Expectations but Politics as Usual: The Rise and Fall of a State-Level Evaluation Initiative, Bob L. Johnson recounts how Roemer initially succeeded in passing reforms for accountability and teacher evaluations, only to see them eroded in subsequent years.
“The problems and politics associated with (Roemer’s) Louisiana Teacher Evaluation Program worked against Roemer and his bid for re-election,” Johnson writes. “Teachers played a key role in his defeat.”
The grassroots teacher movement to reverse Roemer’s policies was impressive. Tens of thousands of teachers organized. Lawmakers repealed Roemer’s landmark reforms, and he lost re-election.
Maybe that’s why Jindal waited until a second term to tackle this controversial topic, that third rail of grown-up politics. He has had four years to build his national name recognition, raise record-setting amounts of money and influence legislative races across the state. As all this was playing out, Louisiana voters became more conservative.
According to some involved with ongoing education reform discussions, Jindal is poised to get what he wants in tenure changes and enhancements for early childhood education. “Everything else is going to be tough,” said one of the governor’s stakeholders.
Several other major issues remain:
• A move to give local superintendents more control over personnel decisions (and more independence from local board members).
• Expanding Louisiana’s fledgling voucher program by giving parents with kids in poor performing public schools the option of sending their kids to private schools.
• Making it easier for charter operators that perform well to open new charter schools.
• Expanding the list of “authorizers” that can grant charters to potentially include faith-based groups (read: fundamentalist churches, which are big Jindal backers).
The battle is just beginning — and we may be saying that even after the session adjourns. Johnson recounts how teacher unions unsuccessfully challenged Roemer’s programs in court before making their case with voters. Jindal may face the same fate, but not necessarily the same results.
Roemer probably isn’t watching this as he runs for president. Jindal, however, is most certainly watching the aftereffects of Super Tuesday. Jindal was on the campaign trail for a while — until his horse, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, pulled up lame. Now he’s mentioned (with others) as a possible candidate in a brokered convention.
As comedian Stephen Colbert passes Roemer to become the sixth-most popular draft candidate of Americans Elect, Jindal may also be learning what not to do if he decides to jump into the presidential fray.
For now, Jindal is taking cues from Roemer’s education reform crusade — and making his own way down that ivy-covered road of promise.