Education overhaul slows in 2013 session

With two notable exceptions, the 2013 Legislature was marked by the death of a wide range of public school bills, including a push to delay the key impact of Louisiana’s new teacher evaluations.

Other prominent casualties were:

Four bills touted as insurance in case a 2012 teacher tenure overhaul and other changes were struck down by the state Supreme Court.

A House-approved bid to block tougher rules for how the state will grade public high schools this fall.

A seemingly noncontroversial bill to spell out details of revamped early childhood programs, which got caught up in the late-session crossfire between the House and Senate.

In addition, proposals to give new authority to highly rated principals, ban sanctions on teachers until their evaluations are complete and a push to let voters pick a state superintendent of education died as well.

All the defeats were a sharp contrast to the 2012 regular legislative session.

That one included approval of sweeping bills pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal to expand vouchers statewide, to make it harder for teachers to earn and retain a form of job protection called tenure and to move day-to-day authority from local school boards to superintendents.

“Legislators were just reluctant to do anything more and maybe to try to put the brakes on,” Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, said of the defeats.

The two glaring exceptions to all the failed bills were approval of a $69 million boost in state aid to public schools and renewed voucher aid.

Both were part of the $25.4 billion operating budget, which won final approval less than one hour before adjournment.

Teacher union leaders and others praised the school hike — the first of its kind in five years — and one that will boost teacher salaries by about $500, or a little more.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said in a prepared statement that his group was “encouraged by the spirit of cooperation” behind the increase in school aid.

After days of negotiations, the budget passed the House 104-0 and the Senate 38-1.

The same measure includes roughly $45 million to fund vouchers for about 8,000 students for the 2013-14 school year.

Vouchers provide state aid for some students who attended C, D and F schools to enroll in private and parochial schools, a key Jindal priority.

That assistance was up in the air after the state Supreme Court ruled that a 2012 law that funded vouchers from the Minimum Foundation Program — the source of aid for public schools — was unconstitutional.

Eric Lewis, state director of the Louisiana branch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said approval of the money means parents “can finally stop stressing about what they can do about their kids’ education this fall.”

In one of the key votes of the session, the state Senate Education Committee narrowly rejected a teacher evaluation measure that cleared the House 102-0.

Under current rules, teachers who are rated ineffective in the 2012-13 school year and the 2013-14 session could face dismissal.

The proposal, House Bill 160, would have pushed that timetable back one year amid complaints about how the new reviews are working, and the fact they have been tweaked several times.

Opponents said the new evaluations, half of which are linked to the growth of student achievement for some teachers, have been tested for years and that the delay was aimed at killing the changes.

State Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Dubberly, sponsor of the delay, said the key to a solid job evaluation is a dependable data bank.

“When you go back to this year, the data will not be as reliable as it should have been,” Reynolds said.

Four bills aimed at protecting education changes approved last year never got a hearing. They are House bills 478, 644 and 596 and Senate Bill 89.

All four were filed after 19th Judicial District Court Judge R. Michael Caldwell, of Baton Rouge, struck down a 2012 state law, including changes that make it harder to teachers and earn and retain tenure.

But sponsors never pushed the bills, and fears by backers that the law also would be struck down by the state Supreme Court were eased May 31 when the court vacated Caldwell’s ruling.

In other areas, a House-passed measure to block state plans to change the way public high schools are graded died in the Senate Education Committee.

On another issue, Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, downplayed the impact of the death of his bill to spell out details of Louisiana’s bid to revamp early childhood classes, including the issuance of letter grades.

The legislation, Senate Bill 130, breezed through the Senate but died in the House amid bickering over other topics.

Appel said some of the changes in the proposal can be done by state education officials.

In addition, the overhaul does not take effect until the 2015-16 school year.