New School Policies Face Uncertain Future

Already under one cloud, the future of sweeping changes in Louisiana public schools faces more uncertainty after a state district court judge tossed out a law that makes it harder for teachers to earn job security.

“It really puts school board policies that were recently revised due to the new laws in a total state of disarray,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

The latest twist stems from a ruling by 19th Judicial District Court Judge R. Michael Caldwell of Baton Rouge.

The judge, reversing his earlier decision, struck down a 2012 law that makes it more difficult for public school teachers to earn and retain a form of job protection called tenure.

The same law requires 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.

The future of those policies is also in doubt, and some may become local options.

Attorneys for the state said they will appeal Caldwell’s ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court, and that any hearing and ruling is likely months away.

The same court is already set to hear arguments on March 19 on the legality of the state’s expanded voucher program.

That measure allows some students from troubled public schools to attend private and parochial schools using state education dollars.

However, 19th Judicial District Court Judge Tim Kelley, also of Baton Rouge, ruled on Nov. 30 that the law is unconstitutional.

The laws were pushed last year by Gov. Bobby Jindal, and both sparked arguments that have gone on inside and outside the State Capitol for the past year.

Both also remain in place until and unless they are struck down for good.

But the latest ruling, if it stands, raises new questions about:

How public school teachers are evaluated, and what happens after a bad rating.

Whether local school boards would retain a wide range of school changes if they are strictly optional.

Whether a Jindal-friendly Legislature or the Jindal-friendly state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would try to take action to work around any court ruling that the law is unconstitutional.

A key part of the law that Caldwell struck down overhauled Louisiana’s teacher tenure law.

Those rated as “ineffective” for two years in a row would be dismissed.

In addition, new teachers would have to win the state’s top rating for five out of six years to earn tenure.

Those requirements would disappear if Caldwell’s ruling is upheld by the state Supreme Court.

“Obviously tenure would revert back to the old statute,” Richard said.

Teachers could become tenured after three years, as they could before, if they meet routine requirements.

However, left standing is a 2010 law that requires teachers to undergo annual job reviews, and links half of the evaluation to the growth of student achievement.

The same measure, also pushed by Jindal, requires teachers rated for two years as “ineffective” to face dismissal proceedings.

“That 2010 bill allows us to see where the strengths and weaknesses of the teaching corps are,” said Brigitte Nieland, who tracks public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

But teachers could appeal any such dismissals through due process hearings and other steps, which was the tradition for years and which sparked controversy.

In another area, Caldwell’s ruling raises questions on requirements in the law on performance goals for superintendents.

The law reduced authority for local school boards and using seniority as the key factor in layoff decisions would either disappear or become local options.

Michael Faulk, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said he thinks much of the law would be removed from local policies, including much of how teachers are evaluated and revamped salary schedules aimed at rewarding top-performing teachers.

But Rayne Martin, executive director of Stand for Children Louisiana, said regardless of any court ruling there is good reason to retain the changes, especially knowing that students are ranked 47th in the nation in academic achievement.

State Education Superintendent John White, who said he is confident Caldwell’s ruling will be reversed, said if it is not he remains hopeful that local districts will retain the new policies on layoffs, extra pay for top-flight teachers and other areas.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers said he expects efforts during the 2013 regular legislative session to tackle the issue, possibly through individual bills that deal with issues in the law that was struck down.

Monaghan said another bid to pass a teacher tenure law may be made “rather than try to defend what more and more people are saying is indefensible.”

The LFT filed the lawsuit that resulted in Caldwell’s ruling.

White said that, after talking to BESE leaders, he is confident they will “explore all options” to retain key public school policies if Caldwell’s ruling is upheld.