BATON ROUGE, La. — Gov. Bobby Jindal framed his wide-ranging plans to overhaul public education financing and teacher evaluations Monday as a "moral imperative" to improve education, as lawmakers opened their three-month regular session.
The Republican governor wants them to shift taxpayer money into a program that would pay for private school tuition, do away with the seniority-based system of teacher pay and make it tougher for teachers to reach the job protection called tenure.
"The moral imperative to improve education goes to the heart of the American dream," Jindal told a joint session of the House and Senate.
He added: "For us to continue to provide that American dream for our children, it starts with a great education."
Jindal focused his 25-minute speech on education, which he called his top priority for the session, and a series of changes he's pushing to the pension plans for thousands of rank-and-file state government employees. Despite an $895 million shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, Jindal didn't discuss his budget plans in his address.
The governor's retirement and education agenda, along with the continued budget problems, are the centerpieces of the session, which must end by June 4. Jindal has raised the ire of unions, traditional public education leaders, government workers and retirees with his suggestions. In turn, the governor has called such critics "the coalition for the status quo."
"The challenges I put in front of you today are not about the next polls. They're not even about the next elections. They're really about the next generation. We have a chance to shape the kind of future we leave behind to our children and grandchildren," the governor said.
Jindal's education proposals are on a fast-track, with committee hearings planned this week.
Supporters point to data that more than 98 percent of teachers in the state are rated effective in the tenure system, while one-third of public school students are performing below grade level.
"We know the union bosses and bureaucrats who fear change will show up in droves and try to make this a fight about adults. But this fight isn't about them. It is about the children and the future of our state," said House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge.
Opponents say the governor is moving too fast and lawmakers need more time to review the sweeping policy changes he proposes. They argue Jindal is trying to dismantle public education and could leave the most at-risk children stuck in failing programs.
"We cannot allow a war to be waged on public education, our teachers, students and working families," said Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, chair of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus.
Even as lawmakers say they are getting phone calls and emails about the education plans, they say they are bombarded with complaints from people who could see decreased pension benefits from Jindal's retirement proposals for rank-and-file state employees.
The pension proposals would shrink benefits for some workers, increase payments for thousands and push back their retirement age. It would create a cheaper, 401(k)-type of investment account for new state employees, instead of giving them a monthly retirement payment based on their salaries.
The changes would help Louisiana rein in the costs of its retirement programs, ensure the state can provide retirement benefits to its employees and keep the price tag from eating into money for critical services, Jindal said.
"It's very important that we get into pension reform. We're going to bankrupt the state in several years if we don't get that done," said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.
Opponents call the proposals illegal, by breaking contracts made with employees when they were hired, and unfair, by raising costs on only a portion of state employees.
"When it comes to state workers and their retirement — the retirement they have paid into, worked hard for and are owed for their service — we cannot and will not change the rules on them," said Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, leader of the House's Democratic caucus.
Next year's $25.5 billion state operating budget is heavily tied to the fate of the retirement proposals. Jindal used estimated savings from the pension bills to fill gaps in services and programs in state agencies.
Edwards criticized the governor's spending plans because they're based on assumptions that lawmakers will pass other legislation. "It is a very irresponsible budget. It just borders on being flat-out dishonest," he said.
Under the governor's budget proposal, up to 2,700 employees could be laid off and more private companies would be hired to run public services. A state prison in Avoyelles would be sold and two other prisons closed. Doctors and private hospitals that care for Medicaid patients would get fewer dollars for those services, through cuts in their provider rates.
Alario said the budget worries him, because the state's money situation could grow worse.
"I'm concerned about rumors of even further reductions in revenue estimates. There could be some more problems on the horizon," he said.
Louisiana Legislature: www.legis.state.la.us