Ed overhaul under review

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators, speaks last week in support of a bill that would delay key parts of the state's new teacher evaluation process for one year. The House Education Committee approved the measure on Wednesday. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators, speaks last week in support of a bill that would delay key parts of the state's new teacher evaluation process for one year. The House Education Committee approved the measure on Wednesday.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education agenda, which roared through the Legislature last year, is under fire on three new fronts.

A teacher union-backed bill to delay the key impact of Louisiana’s new evaluations for public school teachers sailed through the House Education Committee.

Another measure backed by the panel would block plans by the Jindal administration to change the state’s criteria for grading high schools.

And three other bills aimed at making sure some of the governor’s key school changes from 2012 can withstand any court challenge face uncertain futures after being dropped from the committee’s agenda on Thursday.

All the action represents a marked contrast to the 2012 session, when the House Education Committee served as a launching pad for much of the governor’s education overhaul.

Last year, two sweeping public schools bills pushed by Jindal shot through the Legislature in just 23 days, often over complaints that the same House panel ran roughshod over opponents.

Both laws are tied up in legal fights in the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The teacher evaluation and high school grading bills, as well as the three others, are all at relatively early stages in the legislative process.

The session ends on June 6.

But Democrats and other Jindal critics, who were routed last year, say things have changed in 2013.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, of Amite, said the governor’s slippage in the polls, and complaints that lawmakers heard from some constituents after the quick approval of last year’s education overhaul, have helped fuel new sentiments.

“You also have a more effective, more unified front on the public education side, meaning the superintendents, the school boards, the teacher groups, all of them together,” said Edwards, who is a member of the House Education committee.

Jindal, in comments to reporters on Thursday, said his administration did not oppose the evaluation delay bill and that his team is willing to work with those who want to improve the reviews.

The governor said he is “not interested in those who simply want to dilute our standards.”

But many of the same groups that backed last year’s changes, including those aimed at improving teacher performance, are vowing to fight the bill to delay teacher evaluations, which is House Bill 166.

In additions, leaders of Jindal’s state Department of Education have previously said the new reviews are ready to go and have been thoroughly vetted.

Under current rules, teachers rated as “ineffective” in the current school year and in the 2013-14 school year could be dismissed.

The measure, by state Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Dubberly, would delay that timetable by one year. Reynolds said Friday he is optimistic about House passage.

Backers say that would give state officials time to work out what they call serious flaws in the new rating system.

Opponents contend any delay would be a huge mistake.

Rayne Martin, executive director of Stand for Children, said some school districts have already had three years to try out the new reviews. The multi-state group advocates changes in education policy.

“Can the 250,000 students in Louisiana who are below grade level really wait another year to get the highly-effective teachers they must have in the classroom to help them learn?” Martin’s group asked in a prepared statement.

The key dispute over teacher evaluations, which were changed in 2010 and last year, is the requirement that half of a teacher’s assessment has to be linked to the growth of student achievement.

The other half stems from classroom observations by principals and others.

Reynolds’ bill, which originally required annual legislative oversight of the teacher reviews, won bipartisan committee approval — a major departure from last year — after that provision was removed.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and another panel member, said it is significant that Reynolds’ bill and others are advancing with the support of some backers of last year’s Jindal-backed education bills.

“That makes a big difference,” Smith said.

Backers of the legislation to shelve states plans to use ACT results — a test of college readiness — in assigning letter grades said the new criteria would hurt even top-flight schools, including Central and West Feliciana high schools.

Opponents of the bill say the ACT is one of several ways to improve student achievement, and that students have consistently risen to the occasion when standards are toughened.

The three proposals that are stalled — House Bills 596, 478 and 644 — are aimed at reinstating key provisions of one of last year’s omnibus public school bills in case it is struck down by the state Supreme Court.

While the bills are sympathetic to the Jindal administration, they are not part of the governor’s legislative package.

“We’re confident in our case and that the court will rule that the bills passed last year were constitutionally passed,” Jindal said in a prepared statement issued on April 23.

David Mitchell of The Advocate’s River Parishes bureau contributed to this report.