Louisiana tenure debate predates sudden national attention

While Louisiana is a national leader in the teacher tenure debate, major questions hover over the issue two years after the system was overhauled.

The topic is suddenly in the limelight after California’s teacher tenure laws were struck down June 10 by a Los Angeles county superior judge.

The ruling made some of the same points that Gov. Bobby Jindal and others made in 2012 during the debate to revamp teacher job protection laws here.

“The philosophy of it was exactly the same,” Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said of the decision and what transpired in Louisiana.

The judge ruled that California laws protect ineffective teachers, ensure an absurdly arduous process to remove them and that students suffer because of it — all arguments advanced by Louisiana tenure overhaul backers two years ago when the bill went through the Legislature.

“I think it is a great ruling,” Jindal said in an interview. “I do hope that it sets a precedent for other states.”

However, at least two major issues linger:

  • Whether teacher job evaluations, which are linked to tenure, will be changed significantly as the result of a bill passed in May by the Legislature.
  • Whether the new tenure law will survive a challenge in the state Supreme Court.

“There is a lot up in the air,” said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, which opposed the overhaul and filed the lawsuit.

Tenure is supposed to offer teachers and others protection against arbitrary firings, and the debate in Louisiana was acrimonious.

What emerged from the session was a law — it is called Act 1 — that links tenure to how teachers fare in annual reviews, including gains in student achievement, and sets up a path to remove teachers rated as ineffective.

That replaced a system where teacher evaluations were based solely on classroom observations by principals every three years, and where nearly every teacher won satisfactory marks.

Under the 2012 law, future teachers have to earn the state’s top rating for five out of six years to become tenured, which critics call a near impossible target.

Arguments continue over how the new reviews work, which prompted the Legislature to pass a little-noticed bill to re-open the subject.

Under the measure, a panel of at least eight lawmakers and teachers will recommend whether and what changes are needed in annual teacher reviews, then submit those suggestions 60 days before the start of the 2015 legislative session.

Appel said the study stems from the view that, if things are not working as planned, what can be done to make it better.

Debbie Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals, said “something needs to be done pretty immediately” to address a wide range of problems, including the two-tier system for rating teachers.

“It is currently not devised so that it is a fair process for everyone,” said Schum, a former top official of the state Department of Education.

Under the current setup, job reviews for math, science, English and social studies teachers in certain grades are linked to the annual growth of student achievement and classroom observations by principals.

Those teachers make up about 30 percent of the state’s roughly 50,000 public school teachers.

Job checks for the rest are linked to whether they meet student learning targets — goals that teachers and principals agree on at the start of the school year — and traditional observations.

Jindal said his office worked with the chief sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, and down played suggestions that the 2012 changes will be rolled back.

The governor’s office worked with teacher unions and others on a new law this year that changes teacher disciplinary appeals.

“Over time, we will continue to see tweaks in how the data is used,” Jindal said. “I think that is a healthy, normal process.”

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, which opposed the overhaul, said the study of how teacher evaluations are working “is a forum for us to put our concerns out there.

“The process is burdensome, it is onerous,” Meaux said. “I think it is a disincentive to teachers coming into the profession.”

What is potentially the biggest shadow over teacher tenure changes is the lawsuit by the LFT that contends the law is unconstitutional.

Judge R. Michael Caldwell of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge has struck down the law twice, the second time after the state Supreme Court vacated his first ruling and told him to take another look.

The key dispute is whether the law illegally includes multiple topics.

Monaghan said written arguments in the case are due this month at the court.

“It is in flux, I will say that,” he said of the teacher tenure landscape. “And the flux has to do with the fact that the law that was originally written was poorly written.”

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/