Education sparks sharp debate

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, standing, sponsored a two-bill package that would pave the way for a new school district. White and his allies say the new district makes sense because the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is riddled with problems. Opponents are encouraging parents to show up for the Senate debate, and to bring their children with them if possible.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, standing, sponsored a two-bill package that would pave the way for a new school district. White and his allies say the new district makes sense because the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is riddled with problems. Opponents are encouraging parents to show up for the Senate debate, and to bring their children with them if possible.

What used to be mostly sedate discussions about public schools in Louisiana have turned into heated gatherings that pit educators, lawmakers and even parents against each other.

“Public education is a lightning rod for every issue that roils the public,” said Pearson Cross, head of the Department of Politics, Law and International Relations at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The push to create a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge, which faces a Senate debate on Tuesday, has sparked impassioned testimony, charges of hidden motives and predictions of dire consequences if it happens, including intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In another area, state Sen. Robert Kostelka, R-Monroe, used his proposal last week to require the election of the state superintendent of education to rip the state’s entire education landscape.

Kostelka repeatedly criticized state Superintendent of Education John White, labeled the state’s top school board a “joke” and branded the Recovery School District an “utter failure.”

A third bill that sparked hard feelings would require the East Baton Rouge Parish school system and others to win state permission before students are transferred to troubled public schools.

Even though the plan was shelved at the request of the sponsor, the issue sparked an unusually heated public dispute afterwards between White and Bernard Taylor, superintendent of Baton Rouge public schools.

White accused Taylor of trying to cover up public school problems and vowed state action to prevent such moves in the future.

Taylor questioned White’s commitment to children, and complained that White will not even talk with him.

Other public school bills have sparked lengthy committee hearings, a parade of witnesses on both sides and promises of retribution at the polls.

“I think the consensus of most committee members is that what may otherwise be good bills are being used to express political positions and therefore what could be good legislation is being sidetracked by these political discussions,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie.

Appel’s committee was the setting for Kostelka’s wide-ranging denunciations, the student transfer bill and an hours-long debate about repealing a 2008 law on how evolution and other subjects are taught.

House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, is holding panel meetings twice a week instead of once, mostly because the agenda routinely goes on for hours, and sometimes into the evening.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, sponsor of the two-bill package that would pave the way for a new school district, said feelings on his and other school bills run high for a reason.

“For the first time you have got some frank discussions about public education,” White said. “For the first time you are having pressure put on (school) systems to perform.”

Sen. White’s proposals are Senate Bill 199 and Senate Bill 73.

White and his allies say the new district makes sense because the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is riddled with problems.

Opponents are sending out emails encouraging parents to show up for the Senate debate, and to bring their children with them if possible.

A bill that would delay the consequences of Louisiana’s new teacher evaluations, which is set for House debate on Monday, has sparked a rift in the self-styled school reform movement.

White has hinted that he could back such a delay, and chided what he called “absolutist” positions against any delay by some interest groups.

Opponents of any delay say the state has waited long enough to get troubled teachers out of classrooms.

State Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, a 40-year educator and former member of the House Education Committee, said disputes occur when the state tries to strike a balance between public school improvements and confidence in the change among those affected.

Hoffmann, who sponsored the 2010 law that launched the new evaluations, backs the one-year delay, which is spelled out in House Bill 160.

He said he wants improved morale among teachers and “wants them to buy into what we are doing.”

Eric Lewis, state director of the Louisiana branch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said the pitched arguments stem in part from backers of the decade-long push to improve public schools viewing some bills as trying to throw things in reverse.

“To some people they feel like it is kind of backsliding with some of these alternatives out there,” said Lewis, whose group is an advocate of vouchers.

Cross noted that the debates date back to the 19th century.

“Public education is like the elephant described by the blind,” he said in an email response to questions.

“Each has a valid description of a part of the subject but no one can claim to speak with authority for all,” he said.