Reform bills could change state’s education landscape
House Bill 976 provides tuition relief, also known as vouchers, for private schools to some low-income students in lower-rated public schools. Also included in the bill, local charter authorizers would be created and charged with broadening the scope of charter schools.
House Bill 974 raises the bar for public school teachers making it more difficult for them to receive job protection in the form of tenure and for tenure to not be available to new teachers.
Area Democratic Senators Gary Smith, of Norco, and Troy E. Brown, of Napoleonville, were the only Democrats in the Senate to vote for both pieces of legislation.
Republican Rep. Gary Miller said he voted against HB976 because it has the possibility to unduly hurt good school systems. St. Charles Parish public school system is one of the highest ranked in the state and maintains a ‘B’ rating.
"It was trying to throw the good school systems like St. Charles Parish and lumping them in with school systems that have not served the children," Miller said "St. Charles has no ‘F’ schools and has no ‘D’ schools. In my reading the bill would allow children in St. Charles Parish to go ahead and apply for this and I just don’t consider a ‘C’ school to be a failing school."
If HB976 is signed in its current form students from "C" rated Luling Elementary and R.K. Smith Middle School in St. Charles Parish would be allowed to seek scholarships for private schools. However, the vouchers will be limited to a few thousand in the first year of the program and would first go to students in "F" and "D" ranked schools.
One of the components of the bill that caused debate and confusion was the allowance of locally raised taxes earmarked for local school systems to be put towards scholarships for students who choose to attend an out-of-parish private school. In a statement released on Facebook Senator Smith wrote "Private schools will not get any local money."
Dan Garrett, a lobbyist hired by St. Charles Parish Public Schools, said the Legislative Fiscal Office revealed that though local funds would not go directly to the private schools the state would expect to be reimbursed with locally levied funds.
"It would actually be illegal for them to order St. Charles to cut a check for a private school," Garrett said. "So the state says they will cut the check out of state dollars and then we will withhold from you enough to account for the entire amount of the scholarship."
St. Charles Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Rodney Lafon and Garrett both predict that the issue is likely to be taken up in the state court system.
"That’s going to go to court," Lafon said. "That piece I believe is going to be a big movement about, ‘Is that really constitutional?’ because your local people voted for those dollars they didn’t vote for those dollars to leave the parish. So I believe that part is going to be very interesting."
Another large part of HB976 would allow for the exponential expansion of charter schools. In the legislation, charter authorizers would be established by the state board of education and act in much the same manner school boards do now. The authorizers would be a non-profit entity that would have to make a commitment to opening up at least five charter schools.
Garrett said he worked on the school system’s behalf to prohibit local charter schools in systems rated A or B, but that an amendment that would have made the change failed. However, Garrett said he was successful in changing what would have been the forceful takeover of existing public school property by charter schools. An amendment was passed that only allows charter schools to take over vacant school property.
"Now if you’ve got a facility that’s empty then that local authorizer would have a right to that facility, but we don’t have that," said Lafon. "We are trying to build some new facilities right now to keep everybody in place. I don’t see us as getting affected as much. That doesn’t mean they aren’t going to give us a local authorizer."
In the end, Lafon said he expects very little to change for St. Charles Parish Public Schools.
"My job is to provide a good school system and provide a quality education for St. Charles Parish and for the last 18 years that is what I’ve tried to do and that is where I am going to keep my focus and that’s where I am going to keep the board’s focus, said Lafon. "We’re going to stick together and try to provide quality for our kids and go get the best and brightest teachers. To me that is key."
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