Education Reform Is Almost Done

The odds are that a week from now the education reform program pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal will be signed, sealed and delivered. Bills detailing how the changes are supposed to work after July 1 of this year have had little difficulty making it through the legislative process.

One major bill in 20 pages explains how reform of teacher tenure, which is a job protection system, and new teacher evaluations are supposed to work. The other significant measure in 58 pages talks about school choice and charter schools. It would simplify the process of starting new charter schools, give parents more control over where their children attend school and help them pay tuition at private and parochial schools.

Both bills have been amended and approved by the House with votes of 64-40 and 62-43, respectively, comfortable margins over the 53 votes required for passage. The Senate Education Committee on Thursday gave both measures unanimous approval, and they will be debated on the Senate floor this week. If they are approved there without amendments, both go directly to Jindal for his signature.

Then comes the hard part. The governor and key members of his administration face the monumental task of explaining how education reform is supposed to work in order to get more people on board.

I had an opportunity to visit with Jindal Thursday and share my views about why many in the education establishment — teachers in particular — are so opposed to the reform effort.

The education bills were introduced late, heavily amended and debated in extended sessions never before seen at the state Capitol. Opponents claimed some supporters of the legislation weren’t aware of the content in the bills. It’s just human nature to fear the unknown, and that explains why educators have had a problem getting a handle on what is about to happen.

Teachers are concerned about their jobs since their tenure protection system is being drastically overhauled. Those who have tenure will keep it, but could lose their jobs if rated “ineffective.” New teachers would have to be rated “highly effective” in five of six years to receive tenure protection. I heard some teachers at a Capitol protest last week say that requirement would make it almost impossible to earn tenure.

State education officials estimate 10 percent of the state’s 50,000 teachers will rate “highly effective,” 10 percent “ineffective” and the other 80 percent “effective.” Those ratings would be based on student performance (50 percent) and the rest on evaluations by principals and other administrators involved in that process.

John White, state superintendent of education, told the Senate committee the evaluations won’t be in place until next year. They will be done in April in order to determine how much improvement a student made over the previous eight months, based on that student’s ability to do good work. White said teachers would get extra credit for taking on the job of working with special education students and those with learning problems.

“Successful schools are already doing these evaluations,” he said. “Teachers will be happy principals will be spending more time in the classrooms.”

Educators also worry about too many charter schools being created and public school funds going to charters and nonpublic schools. Some believe there isn’t an accountability process in place to judge those nonpublic schools that will receive taxpayer funds. However, one amendment to the bill calls for a rating system to be created. Opponents argue it won’t be tough enough.

The possibility that locally approved tax funds might be used to help pay student tuition at nonpublic schools is another troublesome area. Jindal officials say the money is simply following the student, so it is being used for its intended purpose. They can also make the argument that parents who are moving their children to a better school paid some of those taxes. Citizens sending their children to nonpublic schools also pay those taxes.

Sponsors of these bills admit they aren’t perfect and may have to be changed at future sessions. Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said something has to be tried because Louisiana is at or near the bottom of educational rankings and has been there too long.

Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, was the lone vote against two Senate bills similar to the House measures that are up for debate this week. He is vice chairman of his chamber’s education committee and sees the handwriting on the wall. LaFleur didn’t object when the committee sent the bills to the Senate floor.

“It would be futile … and unfair to my colleagues,” LaFleur told The Times-Picayune.

Teachers and other opponents of education reform fought the good fight, but it appears the other side is on the verge of victory. Isn’t it time now for both groups to move on and try to make this reform effort work? If it needs fine tuning down the road, that can be fixed. A better education for the children of this state has waited long enough.

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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