Jindal defends school vouchers in NBC interview

Gov. Bobby Jindal is interviewed by Hoda Kotb of NBC News about higher education in the state during an "Education Nation" event at NOCCA on Friday, April 12, 2013. (Photo by Michael DeMocker, | The Times-Picayune) (Michael DeMocker, / The Times-Picayune)

Gov. Bobby Jindal defended his school voucher program in a whirlwind interview Friday with NBC-TV newswoman Hoda Kotb, saying that whether a school is a charter, private or a traditional public school, government should "fund what works for a child." The interview took place during NBC's invitation-only Education Nation summit in New Orleans and was broadcast live on WDSU and the Internet. 

Jindal is waiting for a state Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the 2012 law authorizing the voucher program. The state Department of Education will issue its first private/parochial school matches for new entrants in the program next week.

Vouchers help "low-income kids that are trapped in failing schools," Jindal said to a who's-who of New Orleans education figures, who grumbled at many of his remarks.

In Louisiana, he said, roughly 5,000 students are now "getting better academic results" at a savings to the taxpayer. The average voucher scholarship uses $5,300 of public money, compared with the $8,500 state and local per-pupil allotment for a child in public school.

Jindal also said he has no problem with creationism being taught in public schools as long as a local school board OK's it. Since the state is committed to national academic standards, he said, as long as schools are teaching evolution they should be allowed to teach other theories as well. "What are we scared of?" he said. "Let (students) debate and learn ... give them critical thinking skills."

Once again this year, anti-creationism activists led by college student Zack Kopplin and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, are trying to repeal the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act that permits science teachers to use "supplemental materials" in the classroom.

Also voicing support for vouchers earlier in the afternoon was state Education Superintendent John White, who tried to depoliticize the issue. When he was a child, he said, the kindergarten in his neighborhood was lousy, so his parents voted with their pocketbook and sent him to private school. He said he has trouble, "on a moral basis, explaining why I shouldn't extend that right to a person whose wallet" isn't as full as his parents' was.

White also promoted his plans to unify the state's disparate early childhood programs and improve career and technical education in high schools. For students who don't want a four-year traditional college education, "What is their viable path to the American middle class?" he asked, pointing out that many jobs in Louisiana require advanced training but not a college diploma.

On the whole, White expressed optimism about the direction New Orleans schools are going, saying, "I think this is a Silicon Valley of public education in America."

Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said the event was "an 8-by-10 glossy" of education reform in New Orleans that could mislead a national audience. "The closer you get, the more problematic it is," he said. The LFT is one of the plaintiffs in the voucher case as well as in a second lawsuit challenging a different piece of Jindal's 2012 package of education laws.

Thena Robinson-Mock, executive director of Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, said the city has come a long way but that "the people who are actually experiencing the real reform are not necessarily in this room."

The summit continues Saturday at 6 p.m. with a teachers' roundtable and Sunday at 4 p.m. with a student town hall. Those events will also be broadcast on WDSU and streamed at and