Inside Report: School issues likely to spur future suits

In just three months, Louisiana’s public school system has undergone three huge reversals, with still more upheaval on the horizon.

On March 4 a district judge tossed out the state’s tougher rules for how public school teachers earn and retain tenure.

Teacher unions praised the decision.

Gov. Bobby Jindal vowed to call a special session and pass the law again if the state Supreme Court upheld the ruling.

Instead, the state’s top court vacated the ruling, which means the lawsuit essentially starts over.

On May 7 the state Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for the state to fund vouchers for students to attend private and parochial schools with the same fund that finances Louisiana’s roughly 1,300 public schools.

Many parents of the roughly 8,000 voucher students who were counting on the aid for the 2013-2014 school year worried that their children would be left without a school, or forced to return to the failing one they fled.

But on June 6 the Legislature, prodded by Jindal, approved about $45 million to keep the aid going for another year.

Finally, the governor and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education announced earlier this year that, in essence, state aid for public schools would be frozen for the fifth consecutive year.

State budget problems, and specifically a $1.3 billion shortfall to keep funding at current levels, were cited as the culprits.

Instead, the Legislature, which prodded Jindal, approved a $69 million increase in state school aid, including pay raises of at least $575 for public school teachers.

Public school advocates credited House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, among others, for the late-session turnaround.

Yet the future of tenure, vouchers and state aid for public schools is anything but settled.

The lawsuit that attacked tougher tenure rules, and other school changes, now returns to the courtroom of 19th Judicial District Court Judge R. Michael Caldwell, of Baton Rouge.

Backers contend the new rules will end years of meaningless job reviews, improve teacher performance and boost student achievement.

Opponents argue the standards are unfair, and will result in firings of qualified teachers.

Caldwell ruled that the law was unconstitutional because he said it included multiple subjects in a single bill.

The Louisiana Supreme Court told him he needed to take another look at the case, which suggests that, if the judge wants to toss the 2012 law, he needs to find another reason.

Under the current timetable, teachers rated as “ineffective” for two consecutive years would be subject to dismissal proceedings starting in the spring of 2014.

And when that happens, a lawsuit challenging the new job reviews is a good bet.

The voucher dispute, while settled for now, still sparks passionate arguments on both sides. Enrollment and the price tag — about 8,000 students and about $45 million — roughly doubled in two school years.

The $69 million boost in state aid for public schools represents the 2.75 percent increase that used to be common before state budget problems.

Less-noticed is that, when the state Supreme Court tossed out the method of funding vouchers, it also nullified the 2012-2013 school aid package approved by the Legislature.

That means the state will use the 2011-2012 funding plan for the upcoming school year, and raised the possibility that the state also owes public schools another $65 million or $70 million on top of the $69 million OK’d this month.

Local school board officials and others are reviewing the legal issues, and still another lawsuit is possible.

Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theadvocate.com.