Tenure changes still spark debate

Just before the start of the 2012 legislative session, Gov. Bobby Jindal called out Louisiana’s public school teachers.

Tenure laws had to be overhauled, Jindal said, because teachers enjoyed extraordinary job protection if they “merely survived for three years” and could not lose it “short of selling drugs in the workplace.”

The governor’s remarks infuriated educators, who called his comments “really ugly,” and some remain angry today.

“He has maligned teachers,” Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said recently.

However, Jindal’s rhetoric two years ago was part of his push to make it harder to get and keep tenure, link it to student performance, create a statewide voucher program, give new authority to superintendents and principals, and remake the state’s early childhood program.

The governor got his sweeping package through the Legislature, and the tenure and other changes remain in effect even while they face court challenges filed by teacher unions and others.

And whatever the outcome of the legal battles, Jindal’s overhaul of a law that was politically untouchable for years will help shape his national profile.

“For Jindal to have effectively or partially moved to a system that strips away protection for teachers who are not measuring up would be a huge legacy,” said G. Pearson Cross, who heads the Department of Politics, Law and International Relations at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Cross and others said the law is just the kind of change that would be celebrated nationally by Republican voters for a governor often listed as a 2016 presidential contender.

“They point to tenure as a fundamental flaw in the current system,” Cross said of public school critics.

But the tenure measure still has its critics.

“I think we teachers understood that there was an agenda when it first came out,” said Javlon Rost, an 18-year veteran of the classroom who teaches math at Kaplan High School in Vermilion Parish. “He (Jindal) was just trying to show how conservative he could be.”

Tenure changes were part of the governor’s “swinging for the fences” approach in trying to upgrade Louisiana’s long under-achieving public school system, and came right after he coasted to a second term without a runoff in 2011.

The governor’s allies said problems with the old tenure system were well documented.

They said teachers got the job security far too easily — usually three years in the classroom without major problems — and once they got tenure, they rarely lost it.

Only 52 tenured teachers were fired statewide in connection with their job evaluations over a 10-year period starting in 2000, according to state Department of Education records.

About 20,000 teachers were reviewed annually. The percentage of teachers getting satisfactory evaluations was 98 percent or 99 percent during that time.

Critics said that showed the reviews were cursory at best and that removing problem teachers required a lengthy, expensive process.

Over the years, various efforts to revamp the system died, including recommendations from a gubernatorial study group in 2000 to end lifetime tenure for future teachers.

And in 2010, a bid to overhaul the system died in the Legislature without so much as a committee hearing.

However, Jindal made tenure a big part of his 2012 education agenda amid cries for changes after a report showed that 44 percent of public schools in Louisiana were rated D or F.

The push, and other major public school changes, was endorsed by the Republican-dominated Legislature after more than 50 hours of debate, often extending past midnight.

Backers said more stringent job reviews would improve both teacher performance and student academic achievement.

Two key changes that won final approval:

Linking tenure to how teachers fare in annual reviews, including gains in student achievement, and removing it for teachers rated as ineffective.

Requiring future teachers to win the top rating for five out of six years to become tenured.

“It makes it an honor,” said Holly Boffy, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who lives in Youngsville and was 2010 state teacher of the year.

Under the old system, teachers were generally reviewed once every three years, with the results based on classroom observations by principals.

Under the new system, math, English and some other teacher reviews are based on the growth of student achievement and classroom observations.

Other teachers’ job checks are based on whether they meet student learning targets — goals teachers and principals agree to at the start of the school year — and traditional observations.

Reviews take place annually.

Linking job security to how teachers fare in the classroom represents fundamental change, said state Superintendent of Education John White, who is closely allied with Jindal’s education efforts.

“You don’t have successful organizations that don’t start with an outcome in mind,” White said. “Accountability for results is critical.”

State Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said the push stemmed from the view that, in a state with the worst or second-worst outcomes in the nation, sweeping changes were needed.

“We actually put in place a structure that has been well received around the country,” Appel said.

Louisiana became part of a national wave of states that have overhauled the way public school teachers are evaluated, according to a report issued last year by the National School Boards Association Center for Public Education.

What the effect will be is too early to tell, the study said.

Robert E. Hogan, a professor of political science at LSU, disagrees with the assertion that the new rules will have a lasting impact.

“While the change in teacher tenure rules will certainly be touted as a major reform initiative by Jindal supporters, it is probably best characterized as an incremental change, and one whose long-term benefits on education outcomes are questionable,” Hogan wrote in an email response to questions.

Some of the early results back up that view.

In the first snapshot on how teachers fared under the new job reviews, only 4 percent of about 43,000 teachers evaluated were rated last September as ineffective, which can pave the way for dismissal.

Another 32 percent were listed as highly effective, the top level; 57 percent were effective/proficient, which is above average; and 8 percent were effective/emerging, which suggests problems.

In addition, Jindal’s push to link teacher job reviews to the growth of student achievement — that rule stems from a 2010 law also pushed by the governor — has been sidelined until after he leaves office.

The delay stems from Common Core, which is a series of national academic goals that Louisiana and 44 other states have adopted.

Hogan also wrote that, if greater teacher accountability is not linked to incentives, or if evaluation methods are not seen as fair, the state may face problems attracting teachers.

That is just what teacher critics, especially veterans, say about the new rules for earning and keeping tenure, and what teacher union leaders and their allies in the Democratic Party would say in any national campaign that Jindal wages.

“It just stripped the rights away from the educators,” said Donna Wilridge, a 32-year veteran of the classroom who teaches first grade at Church Point Elementary in Acadia Parish.

Wilridge also criticized the rule that teachers must land the top rating for five out of six years to become tenured.

“That will be almost impossible,” she said.

Stephanie DuBois, a middle school librarian in Erath and an educator for 27 years, denounced the way some teacher evaluations are linked to the yearly growth of student achievement.

“The thought that my job rests on a student score I think is absolutely ridiculous,” DuBois said.

Critics contend that test scores rise and fall each year, regardless of how teachers do, and that educators risk job-jeopardizing ratings simply because some classes perform better than others.

The tenure law has been struck down twice by Judge R. Michael Caldwell of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.

Caldwell ruled in March 2012 that the measure was unconstitutional because it included multiple subjects in a single bill, a victory for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the key plaintiff.

The state Supreme Court vacated Caldwell’s ruling in May and directed him to take another look at the lawsuit. Caldwell reiterated his ruling in January, putting the issue back before the state’s top court.

When a decision will come is unclear.

“We are absolutely confident this is constitutional, absolutely confident it will be upheld,” Jindal said in an interview.

The governor said the old system was unfair to teachers and students alike.

“I think the reforms we passed are going to be the most important thing we did as an administration,” he said of the tenure and other changes that emerged from the 2012 legislative session.

Kirby Goidel, a professor of political communications at LSU, said Jindal’s education agenda “will sell well among Republican activists in Iowa and New Hampshire.”

But views differ sharply on the long-term impact of the tenure overhaul.

Meaux, the LAE president, said Jindal risks being remembered as “the author of chaos in education.”

“Those schools are going to experience a lot of turnover, and good teachers are going to be lost in the process,” she said.

But Boffy, who spent a decade in the classroom teaching middle-school social studies, said the changes in tenure laws answered a long-standing problem.

“It is frustrating to lay everything on the line and know there is somebody next door or down the hall not doing that,” she said. “I think when you don’t have expectations that everyone pulls their weight, then it hurts everybody. It hurts those working hard and hurts the kids more than anybody else.”