To the casual observer, it might be surprising how often a 69-year-old banker from Shreveport who served as the Republican governor of Louisiana agreed Tuesday night with a Tulane professor of African-American studies who hosts a weekend show on the left-leaning cable news network MSNBC.
But for those familiar with the easy rapport between former Gov. Buddy Roemer and Melissa Harris-Perry and the respect each has for the other’s independence of thought, wide agreements between the two were to be expected. Instead, it was the sharp, heartfelt disagreement between the two that came as a shock — and it came on an issue both are heavily personally involved in, education in Louisiana.
The nominal topic of the debate Tuesday night at Tulane’s Hillel center was the lessons learned from the recent Presidential election, and on that Roemer and Harris-Perry were often in agreement. Neither felt the re-election of President Obama showed a national movement to the left; Roemer said it represented no movement at all and Harris-Perry said if anything, it was reversion back to the center. Both said that many voters feel deeply disenfranchised by the systems that control American politics — particularly large amounts of undisclosed campaign contributions to both parties — and both predicted that the Republican Party will need to become more inclusive on both its social and fiscal policies to build large enough coalitions to win back the White House in 2016.
But when the two were asked about the effect of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reforms, Roemer and Harris-Perry’s agreements came to an abrupt end.
Roemer began by saying that he agreed with a number of the reforms. While he is not yet convinced by measure that pays some private schools to take students who want to transfer out of low-scoring public schools, Roemer said that Jindal is to be praised for making education such a high priority.
“I’d rather have Bobby Jindal trying than some governors who didn’t try at all,” Roemer said.
Harris-Perry, however, said that the movement toward charter schools and vouchers has a primary goal of breaking up teachers’ unions and ultimately reducing the amount of state money into public education. Charter schools are experimenting on children and often failing so badly that they close voluntarily. Meanwhile, schools like KIPP are simply about teaching students to stand straight in line, not to speak out of turn, and stifling their independence will cause them to fail later in life, she said.
“What you have just done is teach them how to be the best prisoner on the yard,” she said.
Roemer shot back that in 15 meetings with representatives from the teachers’ unions as governor, the word “child” was never said once. Instead, they only talked about teacher tenure and pay scales. One year, he discovered that out of 81,000 teachers in the state, only one had been fired — despite the state’s notoriously abysmal rankings, Roemer said.
“The system is bad, Melissa,” Roemer said.
The appropriate response, Harris-Perry countered, is “massive investment of public funds into public schools.” The American university system is regarded as best in the world because of the enormous resources it has, she said, and higher teacher pay leads to better student performance.
Introducing more choice into the system as both Jindal and Obama have promoted is also a necessary solution, Roemer said. Taking her example, Roemer said that students select which colleges they apply to and can leave if they are unsatisfied, forcing universities to strive for excellence to compete for students.
“Try that in the third grade, if your parents are unhappy,” Roemer said.
After about 20 minutes of intense, uninterrupted back-and-forth between the two, moderator Lee Zurik suggested that he would take another question from the audience, since they seemed to be more provocative than his questions. Harris-Perry concurred — the audience had found a topic where she and Roemer truly disagreed.
“We agree on a lot,” she said with a note of surprise.
To replay our broadcast of the debate, see the top of the article, or to read our live coverage, see below.