Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Baton Rouge audience Wednesday that merit pay for teachers and school choice are among steps needed to improve the nation’s education system.

“We should reward excellent teachers,” Rice said.

“If it is not your cup of tea, find another profession,” she said. “We cannot afford poor teachers.”

Rice was the key speaker at an education forum called “Leadership for Change,” which was organized by legislators and groups pushing for sweeping changes in public schools.

Rice and Gov. Bobby Jindal took part in a 45-minute forum moderated by former television journalist Campbell Brown, who is the daughter of former state Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown.

After the joint appearance with Rice, Jindal sidestepped questions on whether he thinks efforts to repeal Louisiana’s state income taxes — the governor’s key priority — are dead for the two-month session.

“It is up to the Legislature,” Jindal said.

If Louisiana House and state Senate members do not act on the issue “it is a missed opportunity,” the governor said.

Up to 850 people were expected to attend the 4½-hour event, including a wide array of state education officials, educators and state lawmakers.

Speakers included state Superintendent of Education John White; House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge and a key organizer of the event; Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie; and former state Sen. Ann Duplessis, of New Orleans.

The recurring message among almost every speaker is that school change advocates have to overcome huge obstacles, especially from teacher unions, to right the nation’s public education system.

“We have the shortest learning day and the shortest learning year in the industrialized world,” Rice told the group.

Jindal said an improved education system is the key to making the United States the tops in economic development.

“It doesn’t sound very American to say we are No. 17, we are No. 25,” he said.

“We have to have a sense of urgency,” Jindal added.

Rice served as secretary of state from 2005 to 2009 for former President George W. Bush. She was Bush’s national security adviser from 2001-04.

Rice is former provost of Stanford University, where she was also a professor.

Without going into details, she touted the benefits of school choice by noting that, in higher education, schools such as Stanford, Harvard and others compete for top students.

Parents with financial means can find good schools, while those from poor families are left behind, Rice said.

“So give parents some choice,” she said. “You may not be able to save all children but some will be served.”

Duplessis, who was in the state Senate from 2002 to 2010, said she moved from working to kill some of the state’s early voucher legislation to being convinced that public school students needed more options out of failing schools.

“I had mothers coming up to me saying ‘I can’t understand why my kids can’t move to a better situation,’ ” said Duplessis, a former aide to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Another key factor in her changed thinking, the Democrat said, was the murder of her father, a cab driver who was robbed and killed by two school dropouts.

“They were in survival mode,” she said. “We’ve got to look at a different method of looking at our kids.”

White said the state is on the cusp of lasting school improvements.

“We are stepping on the gas on this long journey of changes,” he said. “We have made changes and we are not going back.”