Union head wants Legislature to look carefully at school bills

The president of a teachers union said Monday he is hopeful the Louisiana Legislature will have a wide-open debate rather than simply re-enact laws to overhaul public school operations struck down by district courts.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said education arguments during the 2012 session produced a “mess” and sparked two lawsuits by his group and others.

“Please, let’s not have another session like the regular session of 2012,” an Louisiana Federation of Teachers, or LFT, handout given to reporters in Baton Rouge states.

Last year the Legislature, over LFT opposition, passed a series of sweeping public school changes pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

One expanded Louisiana’s voucher program for some students to attend private and parochial schools at state expense.

The other key measure makes it harder for teachers to earn and retain a form of job protection called tenure, trimmed the authority of local school boards and made other changes.

The LFT filed lawsuits against both measures, and both were struck down by the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge. Attorneys for the state have appealed both rulings.

The nine-week regular legislative session begins on April 8.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, has said backers of the embattled laws plan to push many of the same issues this year in a bid to meet court objections, especially if the state Supreme Court tosses out the laws.

Monaghan said he is hopeful that any new debates will spark a “serious dialogue” and one marked by “transparency.

“Good law isn’t made clandestinely,” Monaghan told reporters.

Talking to reporters in Metairie, Monaghan said that, during last year’s debate, key points were all but overlooked, including a provision that removed the rule that teachers in charter schools have to be certified.

Monaghan also said state aid for voucher students may spark more skepticism after a year of experience with the statewide aid, including questions about some subjects taught by private and parochial schools.

He said some schools offered a curriculum that “makes us a laughingstock.”

The LFT leader said the state Department of Education has spent more than $300,000 advertising for private schools in connection with the new voucher law, which he said makes it appear state government favors private and religious schools over public classrooms.

State Superintendent of Education John White said Monday that, while the state spent about $160,000 last year to launch the program — $15 per applicant — no such spending is planned for the financial year that begins on July 1.

Nineteenth Judicial District Court Judge Timothy Kelley, of Baton Rouge, ruled on Nov. 30 that the 2012 voucher law represents an unconstitutional diversion of state dollars reserved for public schools.

Oral arguments were held in the state Supreme Court on March 19.

A ruling could come any time.

Nineteenth Judicial District Court Judge R. Michael Caldwell, of Baton Rouge, struck down the law on tenure and other issues.

Caldwell said the measure contained too many topics.

When oral arguments will be held at the state Supreme Court in that case is unclear.

Kari Dequine Harden of The Advocate’s New Orleans bureau contributed to this report.