Inside Report: School reform fights raging

After months of legislative and court battles, the seemingly endless tussle over how to improve Louisiana’s teacher ranks has entered a new phase.

Rather than high-profile fights, the issue is sparking lots of behind-the-scenes bickering, sort of an education guerilla war over how to get student achievement off the bottom of national rankings.

Teach For America?

The value of those 525 teachers — all high-achieving college graduates — has sparked bitter words among teachers, state school board member Lottie Beebe and state Superintendent of Education John White.

Some rank-and-file teachers question the credentials and commitment of their Teach For America colleagues.

White said the group offers another way to improve the state’s long-suffering public school system.

Beebe and others contend it makes more sense to rely on the state’s colleges and universities, and that $1.2 million is too much to spend for the Teach For America aid.

Bonuses for teachers?

Officials of Stand For Children are trying to pressure the East Baton Rouge Parish school board to offer incentives of up to $5,000 for top teachers to enter low-performing schools.

The group may also offer seed money of up to $70,000 to launch the effort.

But Bernard Taylor, superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish public schools, doused the idea as difficult to sustain.

Backers face an uphill fight to make the bonuses reality.

Teacher evaluations?

White says the state has to strike a balance between rigor and local control, and that rigor is losing.

At White’s urging, local principals are getting new authority over the reviews.

That is sparking concerns that the state may return to the days of rubber stamp reviews, where 99 percent of teachers were rated satisfactory in a state marked by some of the lowest student achievement in the nation.

Doubt that?

State education leaders are bracing for some dismal results the first time Louisiana students are compared with nearly every other state that is moving to more rigorous standards.

The jolt may be just as bad as the first time the state issued letter grades to public schools statewide, which showed in 2011 that 44 percent of schools were rated D and F.

Those results played a key role in last year’s legislative approval of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s public school overhaul.

The self-styled reformers are usually led by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Council for a Better Louisiana, Stand For Children and Jindal’s administration.

They generally contend that public schools need a thorough overhaul, as uncomfortable as that may be for those who collect paychecks from the system.

On the other side are two teacher unions — the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators — as well as the Louisiana School Boards Association.

They argue that the medicine is worse than the illness, and that the state runs the risk of wrecking its public school system.

A high-profile fight over teacher quality looms.

The state Supreme Court in May essentially nullified a ruling by 19th Judicial District Court Judge Mike Caldwell, who struck down a 2012 law that makes it harder for teachers to earn and retain a form of job security called tenure.

The law is one of Jindal’s signature accomplishments. Teacher unions want it tossed.

It is just one more case of the divisions in Louisiana over how to improve student achievement.

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