Posted Online: June 06, 2012, 7:05 am
Jindal offers a blueprint for other governors to follow
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By Quin Hillyer
MOBILE, Ala. -- Probably no governor in the country has had as good a start to 2012 as Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, who orchestrated a triumphant romp through his Legislature of the most sweepingly exciting education reforms any state has seen in 30 years.
Jindal spoke recently in Mobile at a fundraiser for the Alabama Republican Party, providing a large dose of the infectious enthusiasm that has made him an unlikely but nearly unstoppable political power.
Former Congressman Jack Edwards introduced Jindal with the remarkable litany of the Louisianan's career path: Rhodes scholar; secretary of his state's Department of Health and Hospitals at age 25; president of the nine-campus, 80,000-student University of Louisiana system at age 28; assistant secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services at 30; congressman at 33; governor at 36; and re-elected last year in a 10-way race with a stunning 66 percent of the vote. Jindal proved himself to be a master crisis manager, receiving some of the only praise for any elected official in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and then acting as a creative-response dynamo in response to the BP oil spill.
A national audience might have trouble fathoming such a resume for such a boyish figure who is eminently pleasant but devoid of any LBJ-like projection of power. After all, many Americans' biggest exposure to Jindal was his widely panned delivery of the Republican response to Barack Obama's 2009 State of the Union address -- hardly an impressive calling card, although the speech's substance was better than its style.
But that sort of setting did not play to his strengths. Jindal isn't a pomp-and-circumstance, behind-a-podium, read-from-a-teleprompter speaker. In Mobile, in a fighter-jet-filled pavilion next to the battleship USS Alabama, microphone in hand as he stood and sometimes paced, Jindal was more in his element. No notes, no carefully scripted eloquence; just a torrent of words, full of facts and sense and a smiling good humor.
He gracefully hit the right notes with a nice mention of Alabama's (absent) Republican governor, Robert Bentley. He skillfully gutted Obama for a litany of broken promises -- but, as a remarkably pleasant assassin, sounded off in sorrow, rather than with the angry tones or scolding demeanor of, say, a Rick Santorum on a bad day. He laid out a six-point plan for a national energy policy, managing to make it sound thorough and simple at the same time, wonkish enough to impress, but populist and uncomplicated enough to be readily understandable by any audience. (More permits; allow fracking; approve Keystone pipeline; stop over-regulation; reject cap-and-trade; stop the crony capitalism represented by Solyndra and instead go to lower, flatter taxes across the board; the "all of the above" embrace of fuel sources from nuclear to wind to biodiesel, but without any special subsidies or advantages.)
He spent only a small time bragging about his own accomplishments in Louisiana -- budget down 26 percent, unemployment rate below the national average every month of his governorship, best bond rating in years, elimination of nearly 10,000 unnecessary full-time government positions -- and then moved into a heartfelt paean to American opportunity and exceptionalism. He dinged the Occupy movement: "What they really are talking about is managing the slow decline of our country. That's not the America where I grew up!"
And, while still managing to sound anything but nasty, he blasted Obama: "the most liberal ideological president since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. The most incompetent president since Jimmy Carter was in the White House."
Jindal barely mentioned his triumphs in education policy, but I asked him about them afterward. The first part of his package involved an astonishing expansion of school choice. Building on the much-vaunted success of New Orleans schools since the local system went "charter" after Katrina, the new legislation dramatically increases pathways to charters statewide, and streamlines the application process. It also expands Jindal's earlier, somewhat voucher-like "Scholarships for Education Excellence Program" that lets students use public dollars to attend private schools. And it provides a dollar-for-dollar tax rebate for donations to "school tuition organizations" that provide scholarships.
"One of our school union leaders had come out and said that many poor parents don't have a clue about how to make educational choices for the children," Jindal told me. "To me, that is incredibly offensive, that bureaucratic, top-down, attitude. Who knows the child's needs better: the parents, or the elitist, bureaucratic system?"
The second part of this year's reforms involved a radical restructuring (and restricting) of teacher tenure. Tenure will be awarded not based on longevity, but as a result of five years of "highly effective" ratings. Likewise, layoffs and compensation will be decided on merit based on assessments of student performance.
First-term results -- even before this year's reforms -- have been impressive. Graduation rates are up, dropout rates down, achievement scores up, test scores up, and Education Week rated Louisiana second in the nation this year for its standards and accountability.
All of which explains why Jindal is increasingly mentioned as a potential running mate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Jindal is a superb debater, deeply knowledgeable about public policy at both state and federal levels, an excellent crisis manager, a good-humored advocate, and an expert in health-care policy (and creative champion of solutions) when, after the Supreme Court rules on Obamacare, health care could well be the campaigns' single biggest issue.
Best of all, his wonkishness does not translate into a desire for wonks to solve all our problems. "What makes America great," he said," is not another government program."
Bobby Jindal is all about individual freedom and opportunity. His life story shows the magic of both.
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom.