If Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is looking for a running mate who is in sync with his education views, he couldn’t do much better than Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Just as Romney is causing waves in public school circles by advocating a voucher-like system to allow low-income parents to use part of a $25 billion federal fund to send their children to any private elementary or high school, Jindal has roiled Louisiana with legislation encouraging the growth of independent public charter schools that divert public school funds to private school tuition for low-income students.
Last month, Jindal, 41, a rising Republican star, served as a surrogate for Romney on TV the day the former Massachusetts governor rolled out his education agenda in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The fact that the Romney campaign wanted Jindal to tout the plan fueled speculation Jindal was strongly in contention for a spot on the GOP ticket.
“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think highly of Gov. Jindal from the standpoint of conservatives,” Reagan biographer Craig Shirley told The Fiscal Times Tuesday. “He’s put conservatism into practice with the way he’s run Louisiana. He’s brought charter schools to New Orleans, truancy is down, SAT scores are up, and there’s been demonstrable improvement across the board in the schools with reforms he’s brought to Baton Rouge, as well as with budget cuts and tax cuts.”
Jindal’s resume reads like something out of central casting for an up-and-comer in the party: Son of immigrant parents from India, dazzling high school student, Rhodes Scholar, federal and state health and social services administrator, college system president, member of Congress, and finally, governor of a Gulf Coast state that’s weathered brutal hurricanes and a major oil spill.
“The founders hammered home two things when it came to qualifications for vice president: experience and character,” said Shirley. “In terms of experience, Jindal’s been governor of Louisiana longer than Romney was governor of Massachusetts. And I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think Bobby Jindal doesn’t have a sterling character. So, yes, Jindal would be ready to become president.”
Jindal is competing for the spot with some GOP heavy hitters, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. Last week, Jindal, Christie and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia all spoke effectively at the American Conservative Union’s Political Action (CPAC) Conference in Chicago about winning battles over public sector unions to cut spending, balance budgets and improve states’ fiscal outlook. Jindal minced no words in going after Obama, calling the president “the most liberal, most incompetent president in the White House since Jimmy Carter.”
But Jindal still is trying to live down a disastrous performance in February 2009, when he delivered the official Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address. In a discordant, reedy-sounding delivery, Jindal called Obama’s economic stimulus plan “irresponsible,” and invoked Hurricane Katrina to argue against government solutions to economic crisis.
“Today in Washington, some are promising government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us,” Jindal said in the speech. “Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina, we have our doubts.” Jindal’s comments were met with derisive responses from Democratic and Republican analysts alike. Although FEMA failed big time, Jindal proved to be dead wrong. In 2011, Congress approved $6 billion worth of disaster relief to help victims in Louisiana and other coastal states of both Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Katrina.
“There is an element of not-ready-for-prime-time yet,” veteran Republican pollster John Zogby said of Jindal yesterday. “He jumped into the fray way too soon. It hurt him, and not simply because he didn’t look good, but he said some stupid things. He said, ‘You know, we don’t need government here in New Orleans, we pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps after Hurricane Katrina.’ Man, you could jump all over that.”
“That said, he’s certainly a face for the future,” Zogby added, noting the GOP must do more to appeal to minorities, including the growing numbers of voters with South Asian roots. “But not this year.”
Jindal is the son of immigrants from Punjab who arrived in the U.S. shortly before he was born in 1971. He grew up in Baton Rouge, attended Baton Rouge Magnet High School, and went on to Brown University, graduating with honors and double majoring in public policy and biology. At Oxford, he earned a master’s in political science with a health policy emphasis.
After a stint with McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, he took over Louisiana’s healthcare system at age 24 and in the next three years converted the bankrupt Medicaid program – which had a $400 million deficit – to a position of surpluses of $220 million. Some criticized his decision to close clinics in order to achieve this. He became head of the University of Louisiana system, the nation’s 16th largest system of higher education, and from 2001 to 2003 served under President George W. Bush as policy advisor to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
RELATED: Romney’s VP List: A Cautious, Wide Open Search
In 2004 Jindal won a congressional seat from Louisiana’s 1st district with 78 percent of the vote, securing reelection with 88 percent – only the second Indian American ever elected to Congress. He was elected House Assistant Majority Whip and served in the leadership position for two years. In 2007 he successfully ran for governor, steering Louisiana through the evacuation that was necessary during Hurricane Gustav in the summer of 2008 and then handling the state’s response to the BP oil spill in the spring of 2010. Even James Carville, the Democratic strategist, gave Jindal kudos for leadership. “I don’t agree with the guy on everything, but Gov. Jindal has provided competent, honest and personal leadership throughout some of the Louisiana’s toughest times,” said Carville after the crisis. Jindal won reelection as governor in 2011 and is a Christian convert from Hinduism; he and his wife have three children.
UNITED ON EDUCATION
Romney and Jindal clearly share close views on educational reform. Last month, Romney called education the “civil rights issue of our era,” and outlined plans to use federal funds to allow low-income and disabled students to attend any public school, charter school or qualifying private institution in their state. He proposed increasing the number of charter schools, requiring stricter state oversight of school performance and simplifying financial aid for college students.
Romney used the address to attack teachers unions and said Obama is incapable of fixing the nation's underperforming schools because he is too beholden to those unions. “President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses – and [is] unwilling to stand up for kids,” Romney said. “He can’t talk up reform while indulging the groups that block it. He can’t be the voice of disadvantaged public school kids and the protector of special interests.”
In April, the state legislature approved a package of Jindal’s reforms to curtail teacher tenure protections, link teacher compensation to student performance, and establish a statewide voucher program that uses the public school financing formula to underwrite the cost of sending low-income students to private and parochial schools. The voucher program is among the most controversial aspects of Jindal’s plan. It will apply to any child from a low-income family who attends a school that receives a letter grade of C, D or F.
The new legislation has been hailed by many parents and conservative groups as a means of providing low-income families living in districts with inadequate or substandard public schools with a meaningful education alternative. But public teachers groups and Democratic lawmakers – and even some GOP state legislators – warn the initiatives will undermine the struggling public school system by draining it of resources. More than 70 percent of Louisiana’s public schools reportedly would be impacted: They’d be forced to compete with private schools for limited public funds. Parents who choose to opt out of the public schools would be able to draw on the public funds allocated for their children to pay for private tuition.
“This is a national agenda to do away with public education as we know it,” state Rep. J. Rogers Pope, a retired teacher and administrator and one of a handful of Republicans who opposed Jindal’s measures, told The New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I hope I’m dead wrong. I hope we are not destroying something we all grew up with.”