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Voucher, Charter Victory in Louisiana

“Louisiana Senate votes to expand vouchers, public charter schools”
by Bill Barrow
Times Picayune
April 4, 2012

The Louisiana Senate handed Gov. Bobby Jindal sweeping victories Wednesday, giving him comfortable margins for his wide-ranging proposals to restructure primary and secondary education in Louisiana.

In a 23-16 vote, which followed a handful of amendments, senators voted to limit teacher tenure and overhaul educators’ compensation, while shifting hiring and firing authority from school boards to superintendents. The upper chamber followed several hours later with a 24-15 vote to expand public charter schools and establish a statewide program that uses the public-school financing formula to pay private-school tuition grants for certain low-income students.

The Senate action sends House Bills 974 and 976 back to the lower chamber, which is expected to approve the Senate versions today and forward them to Jindal, who is certain to sign them with great fanfare.

Should representatives reject the changes, a committee of lawmakers from both chambers would reconcile differences.

The proposals headline an agenda that would put the second-term executive and renewed national GOP player at the forefront of Republican governors who have successfully redefined how their states organize and pay for public education. They will become law barely a month after Jindal unveiled the initial version of the bills, an inarguably swift path for complex ideas that drew interest from large constituencies, from the business lobby and school-choice advocates to state teachers associations.

Senate Education Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, framed the proposals as necessary and fundamental. “This system has been stuck at the bottom for decades, as long as anyone can remember,” he said. “If this effort saves one child, then these eight hours we’ve spent on these bills … is worth it, every minute.”

Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas, said of children in poorly performing schools: “They are desperate for some option.”

‘A slap in the face’

Opponents chided Jindal’s approach as a misguided venture that places too much blame on public school teachers, helps only a few thousand students through vouchers and shifts taxpayer money from ailing public schools to private enterprises that will not be subjected to the state’s public-school accountability standards.

“We’re just going to open the doors and let the money flow,” said Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans. “We are accepting the idea that because they use the word ‘private’ or ‘parochial,’ it’s automatically better. … It’s a slap in the face to every teacher in this state.”

As in the House, the Senate votes mostly tracked party lines. Also reflecting their House colleagues, the exceptions generally tracked with a lawmaker’s leadership status: Most Democrats who voted with the governor have plum committee posts, while most Republicans who defected do not.

Jindal’s top aides watched the debate throughout the afternoon from the front rows of the floor-level gallery, where they conferred often with Appel and other senators. The governor listened from his fourth-floor office, Chief of Staff Stephen Waguespack said.

About 1,000 teachers came to the Capitol for the debate, listening to speakers on the front steps and filling the Senate’s upper gallery during debate. By the time senators approved the voucher-charter bill shortly after 9 p.m., the upper gallery was nearly empty.

Most of the changes will go into effect for the 2012-13 school year, though the state teachers unions are expected to file state lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of using the Minimum Foundation Program formula — created as the financing mechanism for public schools — to finance vouchers.

Though the most heated rhetoric during three weeks of debate involved the voucher program, Appel said the tenure and charter school changes promise more sweeping effects.

The charter expansion allows the state board of education to certify other nongovernmental organizations that would in turn be responsible for issuing charters. It also would allow a majority of parents in an F-rated public school to opt out of the traditional public system and apply for a charter. The bill also, over opponents’ objections, would allow charter schools to avoid hiring certified teachers, opting instead for anyone with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Generally, the tenure bill makes job security harder to achieve, with the associated protections tied to a teacher’s standing under a new evaluation system that lawmakers adopted during Jindal’s first term.

That system is being piloted in several school systems and has yet to be finalized. It consists of two parts: a principal’s observation of a teacher resulting in a qualitative assessment, and a quantitative assessment based on student performance. A teacher would be classified as highly effective, effective or ineffective. Though the cumulative evaluation formula has not been finalized, state Department of Education authorities and Jindal aides estimate that about 10 percent of teachers will achieve the “highly effective” status, while 10 percent will fall in the “ineffective” category.

Current law grants teachers tenure after they successfully complete three years of at-will employment in a school. The current system grants a tenured teacher the right to a hearing in front of the school board before he or she can be fired for cause. The Jindal measure would require that all teachers hired after July 1, 2012, achieve “highly effective” status under the new system for five out of six years to receive tenure. Teachers who already have tenure would retain it. But all teachers — including those currently tenured — would lose the due process protections upon being judged “ineffective.” And rather than a teacher having a right to a due process hearing before the school board to determine dismissal, a principal and superintendent could fire any at-will teacher. That teacher then would have the right to an appeal before a three-person panel that would include the superintendent, principal and another teacher chosen by the fired instructor. Any subsequent appeal would be in the state court system. Teachers’ lobbyists have throughout the legislative session decried those changes as giving teachers’ no legitimate due process rights.

In a key change, senators would allow a second observation — by a panel appointed by the superintendent — for a teacher who is found “ineffective” by the principal but scores a “highly effective” rating on the quantitative portion of the evaluation structure. The principal could not be part of that panel.

Further, the bill would require school systems to reconfigure salary structures, moving away from longevity and degree certification to basing raises on evaluations and student performance, while also adding incentive pay for teaching in certain subject areas or geographic locations. Superintendent contracts would have to be tied to student performance, as well.

Voucher eligibility would extend to students from households with income at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level and who are enrolled in or zoned to attend public schools that score a C, D or F on the state accountability assessment. That covers about 380,000 children. Students from D and F schools — about 265,000 students — would get priority in the program. But the Jindal administration has said private schools, which would choose whether to participate, are expected to open only a few thousand slots initially.

Senators rejected changes that would have subjected the private schools that accept voucher money to the public school accountability system. As it is, the state superintendent must develop an “accountability” system for those schools, though the bill gives no framework for those rules.

“Is it the end game? Of course not,” Appel told his colleagues. “If we find things that aren’t working” in the future, “I’ll be the first one at this microphone to work to fix it.”