Education

Mar 22, 2012 6:06 AM by AP

More to education bills than vouchers, tenure

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Vouchers, charters and tenure are the buzz words in legislation coming up for debate in the House on Thursday but the details in the complicated bills are more far-reaching than the often-brief descriptions in news stories might indicate.

If passed, they would continue an erosion of local school board members' influence in hiring and firing teachers - an erosion that began last year. Also in the bills are provisions making it easier to put non-certified teachers in charter school classrooms and others that could give colleges and nonprofit groups the power to authorize charter schools - public schools overseen by government but run with a great deal of autonomy by private groups.

The 45-page voucher-charter bill and the companion tenure measure are so lengthy and complex that even some supporters of the concepts have questioned Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration's decision to push them through the session quickly. Backers insisted on pushing House and Senate versions of the measures through committees in two all-day hearings last week, the first week of a legislative session that ends in June.

"The importance of making these bills as effective as possible so that they leave a lasting legacy, coupled with the potential benefit to hundreds of thousands of Louisiana students, deserves no less than a deliberative legislative process," Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who has given much of the Jindal plan high marks, said in a news release. "The question is, will it be thoughtful consideration and serious debate, or rubber-stamp acquiescence that rules the day?"

The administration says the bills are getting thorough hearings - the House panel that advanced them met for 16 hours last week - and are being handled with a sense of urgency.

"We have a moral imperative to make sure that every child gets a great education. ... It is impermissible and unacceptable to say we've got to slow down," Jindal said Wednesday.

The bill that would make tenure harder to obtain and maintain also gives school principals and local superintendents the power to hire teachers. Current law gives the elected members of local school boards the authority to reject superintendents' and principals' hiring decisions, but that language would be struck from the law under the package backed by Jindal and sponsored in the House by Baton Rouge Rep. Steve Carter, both Republicans.

Seniority would no longer be a protection for teachers when layoffs are made. Neither would friendly school board members: The measure would delegate reduction-in-force decisions to the local superintendent and the decisions would have to be based on performance and effectiveness criteria that include student performance.

School boards would still hire and fire superintendents, as they do now. However, in districts that are performing poorly - with a letter grade from the state of C, D or F - boards would have to put performance targets in new superintendents' contracts. The law states that those targets will involve student achievement, graduation rates and teacher performance.

The bill marks Carter's latest move to rein in local school boards' power, which he began in 2009 with attempts to limit their terms and cut their pay. He had more success in 2010, winning passage of a bill requiring a board's two-thirds vote to fire superintendents while prohibiting individual board members from meddling with hiring and demotion decisions in school districts.

The rationale behind such legislation, supporters say, is that school boards should set policy but leave day-to-day management to superintendents and principals. Opponents of the bill argue that such measures take power away from people chosen by voters.

The other major part of Jindal's package is commonly called the voucher bill. It would expand to the entire state a program now in effect in New Orleans, the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program. It provides state taxpayer-funded private school tuition to students from low-and-moderate income families. The current program extends only to students in schools deemed failing under the state accountability law. Jindal's package would liberalize the program to include students in C and D schools.

But the bill also creates new paths to put public schools under the authority of private organizations, commonly known as charter schools. Now, the state or local school boards authorize charters. The bill establishes a procedure that would allow a nonprofit corporation "having an educational mission" to authorize charters. Those would include colleges, philanthropic organizations or nonprofits established by a parish or city.

And the bill could further diminish local school boards' power by making it easier for the state to take over failing schools, as has already happened in New Orleans, where most schools were taken over after Hurricane Katrina, and in a handful of other jurisdictions. State law already allows a state takeover of a school failing for four consecutive years. The bill says that the state school board could put a school into the state Recovery School District if it has been failing for three consecutive years if more than half the parents of students at the school sign a petition for such a change.

Another aspect has drawn fire from some in the education establishment: The new legislation strikes a requirement that a school taken over by the state and chartered by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education hire certified teachers. A bachelor's degree would be the minimum requirement.

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