Several Bills Target Public Education . . . for the Better and Worse

by Anitra D. Brown

The 2015 state legislative session began April 13 with nearly 1,050 bills pre-filed by state representatives and senators. Some are benign—more ceremonial than impactful—such as the naming of a few bridges, roadways and buildings in parishes throughout the state. A few have already been withdrawn either because they so resembled other bills or because the legislator changed his mind. But others must be watched for either their potential to hurt or help the people of Louisiana.

For those who have focused their attention on the state of public education, especially in New Orleans, one bill filed by state Rep. Joe Bouie could signal an end to the reign of the Recovery School District if it gets the votes it needs to pass.

Bouie’s bill HB 166 would force the return of all RSD schools no longer considered failing to the locally elected school board from which they were originally transferred.

In New Orleans, that means the 107 schools snatched from local control in the wake of Hurricane Katrina after Act 35 was craftily written to raise the accountability standard to apply to the majority of schools in Orleans Parish, would now have a clear path to local control.

The 2015 session of the Louisiana legislature started at noon Monday, April 13. The bill is set to be first be considered by the House’s Education Committee.

If Rep. Bouie’s bill is approved, the law would require any school that is no longer considered failing to be returned to the administration and management of the local school board, along with all land, facilities, buildings and property that are a part of the school, within one year of the date in which it has been determined to meet the state’s accountability standard.

Bouie’s proposed legislation does not specifically mention it, but appears designed to eliminate the ambiguity and subterfuge created by former state Supt. Paul Pastorek when he sketched out and the BESE Board approved the convoluted policy that now delineates the process for the return of RSD schools to local elected governance. That policy requires a vote by the charter school’s appointed board in order for a school to return to local, elected governance.

It is likely that Pastorek and BESE anticipated that very few of these private boards would vote to relinquish the power, money and facilities they controlled via the schools.

Even by the standards of the original law, successful schools were supposed to return to the entity from which they were transferred (the Orleans Parish School Board in the case of schools under RSD control in New Orleans) after five years. Instead, nearly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, not one school has been returned to elected local control. As the policy stands now there is simply no way to ensure that all successful schools will return to true local, representative governance so long as these private boards have the final say.

Since 2011, a dozens of RSD schools have been eligible for return to the OPSB, with not one charter board electing to do so despite having teachers and parents in favor of the transfer in some cases. This year 36 schools are eligible. And so far only two charter boards voted recently to return their schools to OPSB control–MLK Charter and Lagniappe Academies. Lagniappe Academies has since had its charter yanked by the state for what has been labeled as “flagrant” violations of state policy despite its otherwise good performance as defined by the state’s accountability system. Meanwhile another school, Andrew Wilson Charter, reportedly will go back to OPSB control next school year despite its chronic failure to meet the state accountability standard. Instead, its parents and board petitioned RSD for the opportunity to select another charter operator; and because they chose a charter operator that is currently running schools under the Orleans Parish School Board, they will simply transfer to OPSB control, when in fact, the state should be preparing to shut them down.

In other words, even with a so-called policy in place, there really is no rhyme or reason in how the state decides which schools return to local control and which ones don’t. In fact, the decisions that have been made seem to fly directly in the face of the policy, which signals for many that it is about time for the state legislature to step in and bring some order and clear protocol to an ambiguous situation.

Meanwhile, Bouie’s bill is one of several that would impact public education both here and across the state with what appears to be both good and bad implications for students, parents and teachers.

Attacking Teacher Tenure

State Rep. Barry Ivey’s (R-Baton Rouge) HB 505 would prohibit teachers who become public school teachers in Louisiana on or after July 1, 2015, from being eligible to acquire tenure, instead making their employment renewable each year by an annual contract. If it passes, the new law would only add to the pressure and angst many teachers already feel in the pass or perish high-stakes testing environment by placing the added stress of having to have their contracts renewed annually.

Ivey’s law serves little purpose other than scapegoating and agitating educators. Tenure is Louisiana is not automatic. Teachers have to earn it. Currently, teachers hired any time after July 2012 are eligible for if they attain a “highly effective” performance for five years out of a six-year period. And, teachers in most schools operating in Orleans Parish already lack tenure as the charter operators are hiring Teacher for America recruits for short-term contracts. But across the state education field, tenure is generally necessary and positive despite the effort of critics to blindly blame teachers’ unions and tenure for every issue and problem in public education. The reality is that tenure stops school districts from firing experienced teachers in order to hire less experienced, less expensive teachers. We do not want to see a repeat of what happened in Orleans Parish after Katrina, when more than 7500 veteran educators—mostly Black—were fired to make way for the state takeover of schools, occurring throughout the state.

Expanding Vouchers

Meanwhile, New Orleans’ own state Rep. Austin Badon, a local Democrat and an early supporter of school vouchers, has pre-filed HB 330, which would essentially expand the state’s current voucher program. The present Student Scholarships for Excellence Program law states that in order for private schools to be eligible for the program they have to meet certain criteria including that the enrollment of scholarship students at schools approved for program for two or fewer years not exceed 20 percent of the school’s total enrollment. Badon’s proposal would eliminate that two-year threshold if the La. Department of Education decides that the governing authority of the school has demonstrated a proven record of successful operation and receives a positive independent evaluation—which sounds like an indiscriminate evaluation at best.

Has the debacle with private schools being blindly approved for participation in the voucher program already become a distant memory? It was just a few years ago that the state approved 315 vouchers for a church-run, private school in Ruston that had about 120 students enrolled, where classes were being held in the church’s Sunday School room, equipped only with a video monitor, no computers and long desks shared by 11 students. The school did not have an adequate school building, enough computers, desks or teachers to accommodate the 315 voucher students. It did, however, have plans for a construction project to build a new school building no doubt using the money it was counting on from the influx of more than 315 voucher students. The vouchers, which would have represented more than 70 percent of the school’s population, had actually been approved without state officials visiting the school.

If Louisiana is going to have a school voucher program, the focus needs to be on empowering parents, not enriching private schools, which should not be allowed to depend on vouchers for operating budgets. And with the type of activity that took place in the Ruston case, it just makes sense that the state would want to take every precaution possible to ensure that schools that receive voucher students are qualified and equipped to meet the need. Requiring a two-year probationary period before an approved school can receive more than 20 percent of its total population in voucher students does not seem like much too ask before the state forks over millions of public education dollars to unproven private schools that are already not held to the same accountability standards as public schools. In fact, a law that caps voucher enrollment at or near 20 percent makes more sense than one that seeks to increase it. Private schools should not have the opportunity to enrich their coffers using taxpayer money.

Protecting Teachers and Students

While HB 330 and HB 505 certainly do not bode well for public education, there are a few other bills along with Bouie’s HB 166 that give some hope that legislators are actually looking out for public education and its students and teachers.

Vouchers are once again the subject of a pre-filed bill in the current session. Bill HB 543 is one that ought to race out of committee to full consideration by the House and Senate. The bill by state Rep. Joe Harrison (R-Gray) would establish an accountability system for nonpublic schools participating in the voucher program that is comparable to the public school accountability system. It just makes sense if these schools are receiving public money to educate students that would otherwise be attending public schools that the private schools are measured by the same standards of public schools.

Currently the law only requires an accountability system that measures the performance of voucher students at the participating schools, and not the school itself. If the bill passes, private schools that want to take part in the voucher program would be required to comply with the accountability system. Now with the pro-voucher movement as strong as it is, the likelihood of this bill even making it out of committee is slim. But if it did and then actually passed, parents of public school students taking part in the voucher program should prepare themselves to see a mass exodus of private schools taking part in the scholarhip program, as it is quite unlikely that many of those private schools would want to hold themselves up to the scrutiny of the accountability system that the state applies to public schools. Still, the reality is that such a law would prove whether the state voucher program is performing the task it claims to accomplish—actually providing students that would otherwise be in public school with a better education.

Bouie comes through again with his HB 180, which would prohibit the construction of schools on former waste sites, which should be an easy enough law to pass at first glance. But the fact that Bouie actually had to file this bill to attempt to prevent the RSD from breaking ground at the former site of Booker T. Washington School, which is located on a former toxic waste dump, coupled with the fact that FEMA and the state Department of Environmental Quality have given the project the green light despite proof of the high level of toxins and lawsuits and protests against rebuilding a school on the site are troubling to say the least.

Bouie has said it would be irresponsible to not have something in place to prevent this from happening. To be sure, it would be irresponsible for the legislature to not follow Bouie’s lead and act on behalf of the health and safety of public school children, faculty and staff.

State Sen. Sharon Broom’s (D-Baton Rouge) SB 54 would prohibit schools from expelling or suspending children in grades Kindergarten through third. The proposal seems particularly timely as parents, especially with students attending charter schools in New Orleans, continue to complain of arbitrary and excessive discipline practices that seem designed to oust their children from the school.

Finally, state Rep. John Schroder (R-Covington) has pre-filed HB 542 calling for an end to the state’s participation in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC exam which is the testing instrument for the highly criticized and controversial Common Core curriculum—reason enough alone to prohibit PARCC testing.
To be sure, the current legislative session is one to watch for education advocates, so-called reformers, and especially for parents, teacher and students whose futures and careers are impacted by what takes place in Baton Rouge.

To see follow and see a complete list of bills pre-filed for this session, go to https://www.legis.la.gov/legis/BillSearch.aspx. To express your opinions or concerns regarding these or any of the bills the Louisiana Legislature is considering this session, contact your senator or state representative. You can find your state senator at http://senate.la.gov/ and your state representative at http://house.louisiana.gov/.

The New Orleans Tribune

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