Teacher unions push bills

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One or both teacher unions in Louisiana back bills that would require the state superintendent of education to be elected by voters, add new oversight to online schools and change testing rules for public school students.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers is backing at least 18 bills for the 2013 regular legislative session, including a longshot bid to move the hiring and firing of superintendents away from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and, indirectly, the governor.

LFT President Steve Monaghan noted that the measure, Senate Bill 41, faces multiple legislative hurdles because it requires two-thirds majorities in the state House and Senate — 70 and 26 votes, respectively.

“I think it is really hard to get 70 votes but there has to be a discussion on the department’s role, what the superintendent should be doing,” Monaghan said.

Officials of both unions have repeatedly clashed with state Superintendent of Education John White, who said in December that the unions are hindering efforts to improve student achievement in Louisiana.

State Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe and sponsor of the change, said electing the state superintendent makes sense, since he manages a $3 billion per year agency, oversees more than 500 employees and is paid $275,000 annually.

If the plan wins legislative approval it would be added to the November 2014 statewide ballot and require majority approval to take effect.

If that happens, the first election would be held in 2015, with the winner taking office in January 2016, when a new governor takes office.

“My argument is how can you oppose it?” Kostelka asked. “All I am saying is let the people have a choice.”

The Louisiana Association of Educators is backing at least five bills, including House Bill 584 by state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

It would add new standards to virtual schools, including Louisiana Connections Academy in Baton Rouge.

Smith said officials of the school told her “they feel like they are doing it right.

“But everybody probably can’t say that,” she said.

The plan would subject teachers to the same evaluations as those in traditional public schools; require annual audits for the first five years of a school’s operations; mandate updates on graduation rates and spell out new academic, attendance and discipline standards.

The aim of the measure is to improve accountability and trim chances for “profiteering” by private groups, said Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of LAE.

More schools will soon be offering online classes through Louisiana’s “course choice” program, which will be offered by private firms and colleges starting with the 2013-14 school year.

Backers say online schools offer students who have struggled in traditional public schools another option for success.

Aside from Smith’s proposal, LAE and LFT back:

  • House Bill 343, which would allow special education students not to take LEAP, which fourth- and eighth-graders have to pass for promotion, and the ACT, a test of college readiness.
  • Senate Bill 127, which would allow special education students to avoid the ACT without any penalties on school performance scores.
  • House Bill 129, which changes the timetable and makes other revisions in Louisiana’s new teacher evaluations.

All of the proposals face numerous hurdles, especially since staunch union allies make up a modest part of the Legislature.

Monaghan said it makes no sense for special education students to take LEAP, which measures math and English skills of fourth- and eighth-graders, and the ACT.

“It is cruel,” he said.

Under a new state rule, all public high school juniors will be required to take the ACT as part of a bid to better prepare students for college and careers.

White said last year that the ACT requirement is part of a bid to add rigor in a state where student achievement has long been among the lowest in the nation.

In another area, Walker-Jones said that, under current policies, some teachers are being rated as “ineffective,” and required to undergo intense assistance, before their annual review is complete.

The proposal, HB129, would ban the assignment of any performance labels until the review is finished.

The LFT also is backing:

  • House Bill 467, which would require charter school teachers to be certified.
  • House Bill 115, which allows parents to petition to return schools that are under state control back to the local school system.
  • Senate Bill 67, which would create an authority to oversee the repair, renovation and construction of public schools. That work is now supposed to be handled with local school tax revenues.