Public school debates dominated much of the 2012 regular legislative session and produced what may become some of the most far-reaching education changes in the past 20 years.
“Some of this is huge,” said Stephanie Desselle, who monitors school issues for the Council for a Better Louisiana, or CABL.
“It so fundamentally changes the way some of our school systems and school boards and superintendents operate,” Desselle said.
Most of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education agenda — much of it now under legal fire — shot through the Legislature in a first month marked by late-night, often bitter debates.
One of the key laws will make it harder for public school teachers to earn and retain tenure, which is a form of job protection.
Another converts what used to be a one-parish voucher program to a statewide effort, and uses dollars long reserved for public schools for some students in troubled public schools to attend private and parochial schools.
Still another is aimed at overhauling the state’s early childhood education programs, which drew little controversy but has the potential to spark long-term changes at the all-important pre-school level.
Veterans of the statehouse said the 2012 school laws rival or exceed accountability policies launched in the mid-1990s, which led to high-stakes tests for fourth and eighth-graders, school performance scores and other sweeping changes.
The new laws will also shrink the influence of local school boards, require local superintendents to work under performance contracts and ban the exclusive use of seniority in layoff decisions.
Local school officials will be allowed to revamp pay schedules to include teacher effectiveness, teacher demand by subject and whether the school is in a remote location.
Other changes will allow community groups, nonprofits, universities and local entities that meet state rules to become authorizers of charter schools, which are public schools run by nongovernmental groups.
The Legislature voted to end tenure for future school bus drivers, a law which dates back to 1944.
Legislators also passed a bill to toughen rules against bullying in public schools.
Firms and individuals can qualify for tax rebates if they make donations for voucher students.
Voters will be allowed to decide whether to impose term limits on local school board members.
However, even after three months of debate key issues in the education arena remain as controversial as ever.
The Louisiana Federation of Teachers, which opposed the governor’s school agenda, filed two lawsuits on Thursday aimed at striking down the central parts of Jindal’s school agenda — the tenure and voucher laws.
The lawsuits say that, among other things, lawmakers violated the state Constitution by tossing in multiple bills into single pieces of legislation.
Attorneys for the group hope to get a preliminary injunction to halt implementation of the law while the lawsuits, and near certain appeals, play out.
“The passage of these laws has elevated legal challenges to acts of civic responsibility,” said LFT President Steve Monaghan.
Amid the uncertainty, parents are applying for up to 5,100 voucher slots for their children to move from C, D and F public schools to private and parochial schools, if they meet income and other requirements.
Steven Cook, the father of two children who attend charter schools in Baton Rouge, criticized the LFT’s challenge of the law that will link teacher job security to classroom performance.
“This is a power play for job security,” Cook said. “They are not concerned about making children the priority.”
Laura Lindsay, interim dean of the LSU College of Education, said public school changes that swept through the Legislature got the attention of prospective teachers and others.
One of the concerns, Lindsay said, is exactly how a new system will work in which half of a teacher’s annual review is linked to the growth of student achievement.
“It goes back to how it is implemented,” she said.
Cheryl Lott, the mother of three children in Baton Rouge public schools, praised one of the laws under challenge, which ends the exclusive use of seniority in layoff decisions.
Lott said it makes no sense to get rid of young, talented teachers while veterans keep their jobs because of seniority.
“Meanwhile, the children of Louisiana will suffer while our effective teachers are going to other places,” she said.