Inside Report: La. education issues yet to be resolved

BY WILL SENTELL

Capitol news bureau

While public school issues will likely take a back seat to other debates, the fate of two sweeping education laws from 2012 will cast a huge shadow over this year’s legislative session.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who pushed both measures, said he “absolutely” would call a special session under one scenario, and repeated that vow three times.

One of the laws, which sparked oral arguments in the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, expands Louisiana’s voucher program statewide.

The other measure, which will be the subject of still more debate in the state’s top court, makes it harder for teachers to earn and retain a form of job security called tenure, among other changes.

Both laws were struck down by judges in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.

What happens next?

The simplest scenario is if the court reverses both decisions.

That would mean, despite earlier decisions by 19th District Court Judges Timothy Kelley and R. Michael Caldwell, both laws are constitutional and everything stays in place.

The court could also issue rulings that vary with earlier decisions and set off new questions.

However, if the court upholds both lower court rulings — essentially striking down the laws — tackling the voucher ruling may be the easier of the two for proponents.

Jindal and his allies contend vouchers are needed to give students another way out of failing public schools.

Opponents say it is wrong to use public school dollars for students to attend private and parochial classrooms.

Kelley agreed with the critics, putting a cloud over the future of the aid.

The money, roughly $20 million, comes from the $3.5 billion Minimum Foundation Program.

Could the state find that $20 million elsewhere so that around 5,000 voucher students who formerly attended C-, D- and F-rated public schools remain in private schools for the 2013-14 school year?

The state faces a $1.3 billion shortfall for state services to remain at current levels for the financial year that begins on July 1.

Yet government leaders can always find money for pet projects, and the voucher law is one of Jindal’s signature accomplishments after more than five years in office.

When the state Supreme Court will rule on vouchers is unclear. The session begins on April 8 and ends on June 6.

Chances are good that a ruling will be issued before or during that time, which means that any bid to keep the aid going will likely take place during the session.

How to tackle a ruling that strikes down the tenure law, and lots of other teacher rules, appears trickier.

Caldwell struck down the tenure measure because he said the bill, as written, illegally included too many topics.

Caldwell’s ruling also tossed out new rules that require performance objectives for local superintendents; trims the hiring and firing authority of local school boards; bans the exclusive use of seniority in layoff decisions and allows local officials to revamp salary schedules to reward top teachers.

If the state Supreme Court upholds Caldwell’s ruling, Jindal and his allies could try to pass the package in two, three or four separate bills.

Each bill would trigger bitter arguments, just as the issues did in 2012 during heated committee and floor debates.

The law won final approval 60-43 in the House and 23-16 in the Senate.

Jindal told the House Ways and Means Committee on March 14 that he is optimistic the law will survive the court challenge by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

“We are very confident we are going to prevail at the Supreme Court level,” he said.

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