The Halls Were Full Of Teachers…

Supporters and opponents of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform program had equal opportunities here Wednesday to state their cases. However, not everyone left happy about the way the testimony before the House Education Committee was conducted.

House Bill 976 was considered first. It changes rules for charter schools, creates new ways to approve them and provides for vouchers, which Jindal calls Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence. The other measures deal with teacher changes and creation of an early childhood education network.

The governor told members of the committee the three bills on their agenda are “the most important bills we will debate this session. They are truly historic, important bills.”

Jindal said the scholarship bill is based on the concept that no child should be trapped in a failing school. Dollars should follow the students, he said.

“Education reform is not about adults; its about children,” he said. “It all comes back to education. It’s not about the next poll, the next election; it’s about the next generation.”

The first controversy of the day arose when the committee voted 10-8 to ask educators who came to Baton Rouge to explain whether they took sick time or personal leave time to come and testify. Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, said her constituents who had students in schools affected by the absence of teachers wanted the information.

Reps. Alfred Williams and Patricia Smith, both Baton Rouge Democrats, objected to the requirement. Williams said it was unfair and “an effort to scare folks from testifying.”

Smith said it was an “atrocity” to ask individuals for that information.

“This is the people’s house — it doesn’t belong to anyone else,” Smith said.

Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, chairman, admitted the committee could in no way deny people the right to testify if they chose not to explain how they were able to take the day off. However, most who spoke had no problem with the request.

Later, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, complained about the requirement and asked to address the committee.

“You can’t tell them what to say. It is offensive to try to restrict in any way what people say,” she said.

A new motion to withdraw the request after Peterson’s remarks failed 10-8.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, led the opposition to the governor’s reform program. He said teachers didn’t make the decision to be at the hearing, but had no other choice. The hearing could have been held on a Saturday, he said.

Hundreds of teachers were in Baton Rouge, but there wasn’t sufficient space in the committee hearing room to seat them all. However, they were given an opportunity to watch from other committee rooms on TV monitors. Many others couldn’t get into the building.

Monaghan said, “A couple thousand teachers are disappointed they didn’t get to see this show up front.”

Educators also complained about the early consideration of the legislation. The complexity of the 45-page bill shouldn’t have been rushed, Monaghan said.

“We all want good schools and agree children should have opportunities,” Monaghan said. “We like children, too, but we may disagree over the bill.”

Monaghan said House Bill 976 is being called a choice bill, but it’s a collection of different bills.

“The first 30 pages are not a choice bill. Other bills are included,” he said. “It’s an impossible task to deal with a bill that is a bill in a bill in a bill in a bill.”

Monaghan wanted to know why all language about certification was struck from the bill.

“Even Mr. Goodwrench must be certified,” he said. “Fast-tracking this legislation is unfair to the body (the Legislature).”

The legislative director of the federation said the speed in trying to enact the reform program means parents won’t have the information they need to make wise decisions. She said there are 1,500 public schools and the creation of new schools will create an “overwhelming duplicity of services.”

Monaghan appealed to committee members to remember, “It’s not a vote for or against the governor. It’s for the folks who sent you here.”

Opponents made it clear they thought the legislative process was being rushed, but they had every opportunity to be heard on the first bill in the three-bill package. Carter bent over backwards to give everyone a chance to speak. It’s true it was impossible to get everyone into the Capitol, but it’s always a problem when controversial legislation is being debated.

Large numbers do occasionally influence the way legislators vote, so citizens should exercise any opportunity to be present and be heard on legislation. However, they have to understand it’s virtually impossible for everyone to be able to speak. Those organizations that have been successful at the Legislature appoint spokesmen to express their views and they try to avoid repetitious testimony.

As a neutral observer, I found the process to be as fair and orderly as any I have seen over the years. The House sergeant-at-arms staff and State Police went out of their way to keep the situation in check, and that is the only way democracy can work.

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].

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