The Next Stage For Education Reform Won’t Be Easy

The key components of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform program are a done deal. Now comes the hard part — putting the details of the wide-ranging remake of Louisiana’s public education system into practice.

The end came after 23 days of fiery legislative debate, teacher protests at the Capitol, the threat of coming lawsuits and lingering hard feelings among the opposition. It will take time to heal the divisions, but it’s time to move on and make the welfare of students the top priority.

Most legislators from Southwest Louisiana voted against a school choice and charter school bill and another measure rewriting the teacher tenure law, the two signature pieces of the program. Apparently they shared the views of Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, who said he was reluctant to expose good school systems in this part of the state to an untried experiment.

The school choice bill, for example, establishes a voucher program that would help students in lowincome families use state funds to pay tuition at private and parochial schools. Opponents worry that locally approved tax funds would finance the nonpublic school tuition.

The legislation also streamlines the process for approving charter schools, which some lawmakers aren’t convinced have been in the state long enough to prove they are a better solution.

Changes in the teacher tenure program aroused extreme passions among teachers from Southwest Louisiana. They even started recall petitions for Jindal and Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles. Kleckley voted for and supports the reform efforts.

A new teacher evaluation system is at the heart of the opposition. It would grade the state’s 50,000 teachers as “highly effective,” “effective” or “ineffective.” The ratings would be based equally on student achievement and classroom evaluations. The changes would take place in the 2013-14 school year.

Those teachers who currently have tenure would keep it, but could lose it later after receiving an “ineffective” rating. Some could lose tenure while others may lose their jobs. Fired teachers would have the right to appeal to a three-person panel and then to the state court system.

Teachers won’t receive pay cuts, but current salary schedules paying them similar salaries based on training and experience would be abolished. Teachers rated “highly effective” would be in line for merit pay increases.

Efforts to put the reform program into full effect have already started. The responsibility for that falls primarily on John White, the state superintendent of education, and the state’s Department of Education and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

White said during a teleconference last Thursday that he would immediately start working with teachers. Opponents quickly chimed in that meeting with teachers should have come before the bills were approved. They complain that educator meetings Jindal and others held prior to the legislative session were primarily one-sided, staged affairs.

Maybe so, but teachers would be wise to participate in whatever White and others have in mind in order to have a seat at the table. Evaluations won’t take place until the spring of 2013, but key questions remain. Are principals going to be the only ones doing the evaluations? Are all of them trained and experienced in that area? Is there a way to ensure that experienced evaluators can be recruited to do the job when needed in individual schools?

Local school superintendents will be responsible for hiring and firing teachers, a decision in which local school boards have been involved in the past. Teachers are naturally worried about political favoritism affecting those decisions.

Accountability is another concern of educators. White’s department has been charged with setting up a system by which the state can judge how well nonpublic schools are educating students. White said he will reach out to those private and parochial schools to spell out steps they will have to agree to before accepting students paying tuition with taxpayer funds.

A new feature of the charter school bill would authorize universities, nonprofit organizations and other groups to approve charters. Currently, that is the responsibility of local school boards and BESE. A process has to be put in place that will help the state determine whether those organizations are qualified to approve new charter schools.

Some have scoffed at comments that problems that may crop up can be fixed at future legislative sessions, but it happens all the time. Here is how Sen. Conrad Appel, chairman of the Senate Education Committee put it:

“Is it (the reform program) the end game? Of course not,” he said. “If we find things that aren’t working, I’ll be the first one at this microphone to work to fix it.”

The uneasiness which teachers and other educators feel at the moment is certainly understandable. This is a drastic overhaul of public education. However, the decisions have already been made, and a majority in the Legislature gave its stamp of approval.

Change is coming, but it isn’t too late for those who are affected most to start thinking about how they might become involved in the process. Public school students deserve a transition that is as smooth and painless as possible.

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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