The Louisiana Federation of Teachers, one of the state’s two largest teacher unions, asked a state District Court Thursday to strike down the two key laws in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s push to overhaul public schools.
“In the haste to steamroll these bills through the Legislature, the Constitution was often treated like little more than a list of inconvenient suggestions,” LFT President Steve Monaghan said.
One of the legal challenges is designed to nullify a law that makes it harder for teachers to earn and retain tenure, which is a form of job protection.
The other law under fire would, among other things, expand eligibility for some students to obtain state-financed vouchers to attend private and parochial schools.
LFT General Counsel Larry Samuel told reporters that the group is also asking for preliminary injunctions to halt implementation of the new rules while the lawsuits and any appeals play out.
Up to 2,000 students are applying for vouchers statewide for the 2012-13 school year, which could come to a halt if the LFT wins an initial victory in Baton Rouge’s 19th Judicial District Court.
The key argument in both lawsuits is that the bills illegally bundled what should have been multiple proposals into single pieces of legislation.
“By cramming so many objectives into just two bills, public comment and debate were stifled,” Monaghan said.
In a prepared statement, the governor reiterated his view that the LFT is part of what he has dubbed the “coalition of the status quo.”
Jindal noted that 44 percent of public schools are rated D and F by the state, about one third of students are performing below grade level and the state spends billions of dollars each year on failing schools.
He said opponents “have fought every reform every step of the way.”
The LFT vehemently opposed both bills, and vowed all along to challenge them in court if they won final approval.
The common theme on both lawsuits — whether the bills illegally included multiple topics — hinges on Article III, Section 15 (a) of the state Constitution.
“Every bill, except the general appropriation bill and bills for the enactment, rearrangement, codification, or revision of a system of laws, shall be confined to one object,” the section says in part.
One of the laws under challenge stems from House Bill 976.
It allows some low- and middle-income students to qualify for vouchers if they attend a public school rated C, D or F by the state.
The lawsuit says the plan is unconstitutional because it would redirect dollars long reserved for public schools to private and parochial schools, private “course providers” and colleges and universities.
In Louisiana public school aid goes through a formula called the Minimum Foundation Program, called MFP.
This year it provides $3.4 billion in basic state aid for school operations and about 700,000 students statewide.
One of the lawsuits also challenges how the MFP was approved on Monday, which was the last day of the nearly three-month session.
Most bills require a majority of the 105-member House, which is 53 votes.
But House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, ruled that, as a resolution, it only required a majority of those in the chamber and voting.
The measure, Senate Concurrent Resolution 99, passed the House 51-49.
The lawsuit says that, as such, the measure failed to win a majority of the House as required by the state Constitution.
“The adoption of the MFP was a travesty,” Monaghan said in a prepared statement that accompanied the lawsuits.
The same bill also expands the list of authorizers for charter schools, which are public schools run by nongovernmental groups, and sets up common applications for charter school applicants.
Louisiana has about 50,000 public school teachers.
Under the law, those rated as “ineffective” — likely the bottom 10 percent — would lose tenure immediately and could face dismissal proceedings.
New teachers would have to be rated as “highly effective” — in the top 10 percent — for five out of six years to become tenured.
The same law also requires performance objectives for local superintendents, redefines the role of local school boards, bans the exclusive use of seniority in layoff decisions and allows local officials to revamp salary schedules.
Named as defendants are the state of Louisiana and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
State Superintendent of Education John White, in a prepared statement, said the LFT “keeps dragging us back to politics and courtrooms.”
Eric Lewis, a Jindal ally on the education front and state director of the Louisiana branch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said teacher unions typically oppose laws like the ones under fire, try to water them down and, as a last resort, challenge the laws in court.
“So this is just another leg in the fight,” Lewis said.
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