Hope in the bayou?

Liam Julian

Most 24-year-olds struggle to pull themselves out of bed in the morning. When Bobby Jindal was 24, he was struggling to reform Louisiana's healthcare system.

If you haven't heard of Bobby Jindal, you will soon. Polls have the 36-year-old U.S. Congressman from Kenner, Louisiana, way out in front of his rivals in the Bayou State's gubernatorial race. If he receives over 50 percent of the vote in Saturday's primary (Louisiana has a non-partisan primary), which he well might, he will win the top job outright, without a general election.

Jindal grew up in Baton Rouge, attended Brown University, spent time in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and went to work for McKinsey & Co. doing healthcare consulting. A 1996 article in the Washington Post about Louisiana's healthcare system spurred the then 24-year-old to write a report with recommendations for the state. That report found its way to the governor, Mike Foster, who met with Jindal and was so impressed that he hired him as secretary of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals.

Jindal went on to eliminate the department's $400 million budget deficit, then take a job as president of the University of Louisiana system, then serve as an assistant U.S. secretary of health and human services, and then run for governor in 2003. He barely lost to Kathleen Blanco. (In 2004, he ran for, and won, an open House seat, to which he was re-elected last year.)

Now he's poised to win the governorship and confront the issue that arguably holds the key to Louisiana's future: education.

Louisiana's big education story these past two years has of course been New Orleans. How to revitalize a system that, even before it was underwater, was one of the nation's worst? But the rest of the state has education problems of its own, outside the Big Easy.

Louisiana ranked last among the 50 states in fourth-grade reading on the 2007 NAEP. It came in 44th in eighth-grade reading. It was 46th in fourth-grade math. And according to Jay Greene's calculations, only 63 percent of Louisiana's high-schoolers graduated in 2003.

Jindal has made raising that graduation rate one of his main education concerns. He told the New Orleans Time-Picayune that "not every high school student plans to attend a four-year university," which is undoubtedly correct. "However," Jindal continued, "every high school senior should graduate able to meet either college or technical school requirements." To keep students from leaving school, he proposes career-oriented counseling after eighth grade and expanding dual-enrollment programs that increase the interaction between high-schools and postsecondary education. He's also in favor of expanding "dual-track" options that offer students course credit with career training.

One hopes that, if elected, Jindal will bring some of his McKinsey-honed, pro-market forces and red-tape slashing instincts into the education realm. He seems likely to do just that. In a 2003 interview with National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, Jindal said, "The Fordham Foundation gave our charter-school process a D. It's too politicized." (Clearly he's well-read.) Jindal also introduced federal legislation in 2005 that provided vouchers for students displaced by Katrina.

Louisiana's future depends on its ability to attract business and human capital. A recent Forbes report that ranked the state the second-worst in the country in which to do business doesn't provide a lot of fodder for optimism under present arrangements.

So the potential of the Bayou State to attract business may well rest on its ability to revitalize its schools and thereby produce some homegrown talent.

Bobby Jindal, conceived in India but born and raised in Louisiana, knows something about homegrown talent. It remains to be seen, though, if voters will place their trust in him (education is only one issue, after all, and his opponents have education platforms of their own)--and, if they do, whether Jindal can and will deliver.

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