Gov. Bobby Jindal will find out today who his legislative friends and foes are in his efforts to reshape Louisiana’s public education system. The full House is scheduled to debate three key measures in the reform package dealing with teacher tenure and compensation, school vouchers, charter schools and scholarship tuition rebates.
Approval of those bills by House committees and by the Senate Education Committee has made it abundantly clear that Jindal has most of the Republican lawmakers in his camp. And they comprise a majority in both the House and Senate. However, the major unknown is how many in the GOP will be able to buck the vocal opposition they have seen and heard from the education establishments in their home districts.
Democratic Party legislators, although fewer in number, have been extremely active in trying to slow down the reform effort. They have enjoyed little success thus far, but are expected to continue their attacks with more proposed amendments to the legislation. Some changes are worth considering.
Getting all three measures debated and decided today won’t be easy. It took the House Education Committee 16 hours in one day to get favorable votes on two of the three. The Senate committee took nine hours to get favorable reports on its nearly identical bills.
The charter-voucher legislation (House Bill 976) got a 12-6 favorable vote in the House committee. The tenure measure (HB 974) was approved 13-5. The Senate committee votes were 5-1 and 6-0. Republicans were on the winning side in both committees.
Vouchers, which Jindal prefers to call Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence, are expected to be the toughest issue in the entire package. They would make it possible for students in schools graded “C,” “D” or “F” from low-income families to get state funding to pay tuition at private and parochial schools. Parents would select the schools their children would attend.
Opponents claim the schools those parents would select wouldn’t be held to the same strict accountability procedures required of public schools. They also believe it’s unconstitutional to use taxpayer funds to finance those scholarships. The voucher bill would use funds from the Minimum Foundation Program, a complex formula that provides funding for individual school districts around the state.
Supporters of the reform effort continue to insist Louisiana’s children aren’t getting the education they deserve, and statistics back up their arguments. Jindal and members of his administration have made the point numerous times that nearly $1 billion is spent every year on failing public schools. The governor and John White, state superintendent of education, said their reform program passes constitutional muster.
The voucher bill also makes it easier to create charter schools, which are public education institutions not bound by many of the rules and regulations governing other public schools. New chartering organizations would be set up at the local level.
Teachers are the main subject of the tenure legislation. They would have to be rated as “highly effective” for five years to receive tenure, and those rated “ineffective” would lose tenure.
Current teacher pay schedules would be eliminated, and they would be paid based on “performance, effectiveness and qualifications.” Individual school districts would set up their salary schedules. An act passed last year would base 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on student achievement, a change opposed by both of the state’s major teacher unions.
The rebate for tuition measure (HB 969) would make it possible for taxpayers who donate funds to school tuition organizations to get 95 percent of their money back from the state. Scholarships would be given to students attending qualified nonpublic schools of their parents’ choice that are approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Qualified students would be those in Louisiana families with a total household income that doesn’t exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty level. That is considered to be about $55,000 a year for a family of four. The House Ways and Means Committee approved the rebate bill with a 15-4 vote.
Three polls that have been done on the education issue have shown Jindal has voter support in his effort to put a new face on public education. And the governor and members of his administration have successfully resisted attempts thus far to make major changes in the key legislation in their reform package. The odds are that success will continue today. However, some House Republicans may desert the ranks because of intense political pressure from their constituents or because they believe the reform effort is being pushed too quickly without enough serious deliberation.
As we have said on other occasions, Jindal has done his homework and that will help him get most of what he wants.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].