Inside Report: La. public school changes spark bitter feelings

A bid to overhaul how the state funds special education students is shaping up as the latest flashpoint in the ongoing, bitter fight over public schools in Louisiana.

State Superintendent of Education John White says a makeover is needed because only 29 percent of special education students earn a traditional high school diploma.

That is the second-lowest rate in the nation.

However, local superintendents are leery of the plan, especially since it will likely mean less state aid for some districts.

In addition, parents and educators who grapple with a wide range of issues — the Special Education Advisory Panel — want a delay to study the issue.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, will tackle the issue on March 7-8.

Yet, aside from any details, the latest flap is emblematic of the seemingly endless, heated battles over public school changes.

Louisiana’s new method for evaluating public schoolteachers, which is starting this year, still sparks bitter comments on both sides.

Backers say the new measuring stick, which links half of the annual evaluation to the growth of student achievement, is long overdue.

After all, they say, how can student achievement rank at or near the bottom of national surveys yet 98 percent of teachers routinely won satisfactory marks under previous reviews?

The state’s top two teacher unions, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators, were unable to block legislative approval of the changes in 2010.

Any hopes of repealing the law in the Legislature are farfetched.

Some classroom teachers blast the new evaluations in private but refuse to air their views publicly. They say they are fearful of losing their jobs for voicing an opinion.

Teacher union officials say they can find no one, even among 20,000 or so members, willing to share their views on the record.

Other teachers who have agreed to interviews embrace the changes and say they have no problems linking job performance to classroom performance.

Another topic that remains volatile is vouchers, which provide aid for some students to leave failing public schools in favor of private and parochial classrooms — at state expense.

The law, which was pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, cleared the Legislature last year.

Opponents challenged the measure in court, and 19th Judicial District Court Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge, on Nov. 30 ruled the funding method unconstitutional.

A hearing on the state’s appeal is set for March 19.

Backers remain as passionate as ever, and they argue that vouchers offer a lifeline to nearly 5,000 students who otherwise would be stuck in failing public schools.

Opponents are just as fervent.

They contend that vouchers threaten to pave the way for endless exits from public schools, which they say will eventually be left with only failing students from poor families.

Generally speaking, backers see public education in Louisiana as a mostly failed product that requires sweeping changes.

They also view the public school establishment as resistant to most any change, and unions more interested in protecting teacher jobs than improving student achievement.

Opponents believe that Jindal, White and their allies inside and outside the Legislature are out to destroy public education, and to redirect vital resources out of traditional schools and into the hands of private operators.

In Louisiana the push to overhaul public schools has turned into sort of a culture war, with no end in sight.

Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theadvocate.com.