Education battles loom over session’s final month

The Louisiana Legislature starts the final month of the 2014 regular session Monday with pitched battles over Common Core tests and overhauls of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system among the key topics.

A proposal aimed at Common Core testing plans, House Bill 380, is set to be heard in the House Appropriations Committee at 9 a.m. amid predictions by state education leaders that it would cause “academic chaos.”

Both the tests and the new Common Core standards also could be part of the debate Thursday when the House reviews the proposed $25 billion operating budget, which could be the target of amendments aimed at delaying or ending the exams.

Another Common Core-related measure, House Bill 953, is awaiting debate in the House.

It would give students and teachers an extra year to prepare for the national exam, and it too could become a vehicle for amendments and arguments over the merits of the new standards in reading, writing and math.

Common Core backers say that, with eight weeks gone in a 12-week session, they are generally pleased with where things stand.

“I do think we are in pretty good shape,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, which backs the standards and the consortium developing the tests — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

But, he added, “I think there are some wild cards out there.”

One such unknown is the possibility that Gov. Bobby Jindal will try to unilaterally order the state out of the tests, a move that could spawn still more controversy.

State Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, a critic of Common Core, said that despite setbacks on his side, there is still time to make an impact.

“We still have hopes and the potential of having something done,” said Pope, former superintendent of the Livingston Parish school system.

Meanwhile, the House on Wednesday is set to vote for the second time on House Bill 1178, which would trim the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board from 11 to nine members. The bill fell two votes short of passage last month.

The House Education Committee, possibly this week, will review a Senate-passed measure, Senate Bill 636, that would overhaul the parish’s school system by giving principals a wide range of new powers.

Both bills are backed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. Both are vehemently opposed by school district leaders.

Common Core has been adopted in 43 states, and the new standards are set to take full effect in Louisiana in the 2014-15 school year.

Students in grades three through eight are scheduled to take the PARCC tests starting next spring.

The House Education Committee earlier rejected a bill by Pope and others to scrap Common Core in favor of state-developed standards.

The panel also killed legislation to end the PARCC test plans.

State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, the leader of the anti-Common Core forces in the House, said his side has a 50-50 shot of prevailing through amendments and other maneuvers on the House and Senate floors.

Prospects for any such bills to emerge from the House and Senate education committees appear bleak, and Common Core criticism appears far more muted in the Senate than the House.

“The committees are certainly not likely to let anything out,” Geymann said of the education panels in both chambers.

Geymann may have more luck Monday when the House Appropriations Committee debates his bill to ban the use of state funds for the implementation or administration of any tests developed by PARCC. The ban would also apply to “any other equivalent national group or consortium unless specifically authorized by law.”

Leaders of the state Department of Education seized on that language to predict that the bill would jeopardize the administration of the ACT, which has long tested college readiness; Advanced Placement, which allows students to earn college credit while in high school; and other exams, according to an internal memorandum prepared for state Superintendent of Education John White.

Erwin’s group said the bill would politicize tests, compromise standards and undo years of preparation and field testing.

Geymann disputes the department’s warnings and says he is preparing amendments to prevent any unintended impact of the bill.

On still another front, Geymann and 16 House colleagues sent a letter to Jindal on Friday that said the governor, under the Administrative Procedures Act, can shelve the Common Core test plans himself.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said his group hopes the standards remain but that local school districts need more time to prepare for the Common Core tests.

“There remain many uncertainties, many unknowns,” he said.

The session ends June 2.

Critics say the exams could compromise student privacy, require technology that many school districts lack and suffer from a “one size fits all” approach.

Backers say the PARCC tests will force students to analyze issues rather than simply checking bubbles and will allow for state-to-state comparisons that show how students in Louisiana compare with the rest of the nation.