School debates may be rerun of 2012

Just one year after bitter debates about overhauling public schools in Louisiana, state lawmakers are gearing up for more of the same.

Two court rulings that struck down voucher and tenure laws, and lot of other changes, have put the Legislature in an odd position.

House and Senate members plan to tackle the issues again while also waiting for key, unpredictable rulings from the state Supreme Court.

Backers contend the laws, pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, are too important to leave to the courts.

“We believe certain aspects of this is really good policy for the state,” said Stephanie Desselle, director of education policy for the Council for a Better Louisiana, which backed many of the 2012 school changes.

But House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who sponsored some of the key 2012 laws, said trying to decide how and when to push bills that essentially re-enact laws enacted last year is unclear.

“I have not sat down with my staff to map it out,” Carter said.

Critics of last year’s bills, who say the plans were ramrodded through the Legislature, say more dialogue is needed this time between backers and opponents.

“It appears as if many of these bills are carbon copies of the original legislation,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

The session, which begins on Monday, is set to adjourn on June 6.

On the public schools front, lawmakers are grappling with two related but separate issues that carry different timetables.

The most pressing topic, last year’s hotly debated law to expand the use of vouchers statewide, is likely to turn a corner first.

Nineteenth Judicial District Court Judge Tim Kelley ruled on Nov. 30 that the law is unconstitutional because he said it illegally diverts state funds reserved solely for public schools.

Attorneys for the state appealed the ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court, and oral arguments were held on March 19.

A ruling could be issued at any time on the law, which is called Act 2.

If the court reverses Kelley and upholds the law, the voucher law remains intact.

If judges back Kelley’s decision, Jindal and other voucher backers will be scrambling to replace the money — it is about $24 million — to continue classes for nearly 5,000 students, and possibly more, during the 2013-14 school year.

“The key concern is the funding source,” said Eric B. Lewis, state director of the Louisiana branch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-voucher group allied with Jindal.

The state faces a $1.3 billion shortfall starting on July 1 to maintain services at current levels.

But Lewis noted that state Superintendent of Education John White and others have repeatedly said they will find a way to continue the vouchers if the court strikes down the 2012 law.

“That is the message we keep hearing,” Lewis said.

However, any such effort to find the money, and possibly separate legislation as well, is sure to spark a new round of arguments.

Backers say the vouchers, which apply to students who attended public schools rated C, D and F, offer another lifeline for students and families trapped in troubled schools.

Opponents say the aid drains vital dollars from traditional public schools, which face their fifth consecutive freeze in state spending per student.

Leaders of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, a plaintiff in both lawsuits, said last year’s bills were steamrolled through the Legislature, committees were stacked and opponents unfairly dubbed defenders of the status quo.

“Our teachers don’t deserve and can’t take another one like that,” a Louisiana Federation of Teachers flier says of the 2012 gathering.

The other debate involves a push to re-enact a series of major public school changes that make up Act 1, which 19th Judicial District Court Judge R. Michael Caldwell struck down on March 4.

Caldwell said the law illegally included too many topics.

Attorneys for the state appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court.

However, when oral arguments will be held is unclear.

Any decision may well come after adjournment on June 6, and Jindal has said he will call a special session to preserve the law.

Asked for a comment, Jindal’s office issued a prepared statement quoting the governor as saying that, while he expects to prevail in the state Supreme Court, “out of an abundance of caution we are leaving all of our options on the table, including special session and legislation.”

Legislative leaders said that, in the meantime, they plan to try to essentially break Act 1 into several bills and try to pass them again in hopes of offsetting any adverse court ruling.

The bills are:

House Bill 596, which trims the authority of local school boards and retains the new hiring and firing authority of superintendents and principals.

House Bill 478, which bans the use of seniority as the key reason in teacher layoffs.

House Bill 644, which allows local district salary schedules to address hard-to-fill classrooms and bans pay hikes for teachers rated ineffective.

Senate Bill 89, which would re-enact a measure that makes it harder to teachers to earn and retain a form of job security called tenure.