Judge throws out tenure law

One of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s signature laws that makes it harder for teachers to earn and retain a form of job protection, called tenure, was declared unconstitutional Monday.

State District Judge R. Michael Caldwell, of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, who in December upheld the tenure part of a sweeping education law, reversed himself after hearing new arguments from both sides.

The ruling was a victory for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. The LFT filed the lawsuit and said that the 2012 measure would essentially end teacher tenure in Louisiana.

The decision also could throw a wrench into sweeping new teacher evaluations, which are under way in public schools for the first time.

“It is a day to smile for us,” LFT President Steve Monaghan said after the hearing.

Jindal, who made the overhaul a key legislative priority last year as a way to improve teacher quality, said Caldwell’s ruling will be appealed. “We are obviously very confident we are going to prevail at the Supreme Court,” the governor said in a brief interview on Monday evening.

The ruling is the second time that a key Jindal education law was struck down. The measure, known as Act 1, won approval in the Legislature last year.

But the LFT filed a lawsuit in June, arguing that the measure illegally contained multiple subjects that required separate legislative debates.

Caldwell ruled in December that the teacher tenure part of the law was legal but struck down several other provisions.

However, both sides sought a new hearing.

Caldwell, speaking from the bench, said he earlier misinterpreted details of how the measure was described in the legislation, including the title. He said that, after a second review, he concluded the law was unconstitutional by including multiple subjects in a single bill — the key LFT argument against the legislation.

“It is my feeling that Act 1 is unconstitutional in its entirety,” Caldwell said.

Under the law, teachers who are rated as “ineffective” would lose tenure and could face dismissal proceedings.

New teachers would have to be rated as “highly effective” for five out of six years to earn tenure.

The new rules are also linked to new teacher evaluations — they stem from a 2010 law — that links half of a teacher’s annual review to the growth of student performance.

Whether those changes remain intact likely depends on how the state Supreme Court rules.

Caldwell’s earlier ruling struck down other parts of the education law, including provisions that gave the authority to hire and fire teachers to superintendents and principals rather than local school boards.

However, the judge upheld the teacher tenure part of the law, and Jindal said at the time that Caldwell’s decision was “a victory for students and teachers.”

Aside from tenure the law 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.

During the roughly 30 minutes of oral arguments, LFT attorney Larry Samuel said the law clearly violates Louisiana’s constitutional requirement that statutes “shall be confined to one subject.”

Samuel said the wide range of topics in the law “make a mockery” of the one-subject rule.

Jimmy Faircloth, an attorney for the state, said the court should use an “expansive” view of issues allowed in a bill, which he said are connected by the push to overhaul teacher practices. “There are a lot of moving parts,” he said.

In an earlier key ruling, 19th Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley, also of Baton Rouge, on Nov. 30 rejected a 2012 law that expanded Louisiana’s voucher program, which allows some students who attend C, D and F public schools to qualify for state aid to attend private and parochial schools.

The state’s appeal is set for March 19 in the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Jindal downplayed the possibility that he could lose two of his highest-profile legislative wins last year in the courts.

“We knew that changing education was going to be a tough fight,” Jindal said. “It is just too important for us to stop fighting.”

The governor said Caldwell’s ruling dealt with the form of the law, not the substance of the measure. He repeatedly blamed the “forces of the status quo” for battling the statute, a reference to the LFT and other critics.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite and an opponent of the tenure law, said Monday that, during House debate on the measure, he and other opponents warned that it was legally flawed but that Jindal and his legislative allies “ramrodded it through.”

Edwards, a lawyer, is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and has said he plans to run for governor in 2015.