Education reform strong this session

Although the state budget crisis has dominated most of the discussion this legislative session, bills are making their way through the process – – namely education reform legislation-that would keep Louisiana in the forefront nationally regarding innovative ideas and meaningful reform.

Governor Jindal has proposed a bold package that, if passed, would keep Louisiana ahead of the curve and demonstrate our state’s ongoing commitment to providing quality educational opportunities for every child.

One bill authored by Rep. Frank Hoffmann (R-West Monroe) would measure the growth of a student’s academic achievement during the time that student was taught by a particular teacher. It is purely a growth model measurement for each child, giving the public performance data we have never been able to attain before. Called “value added,” HB 1033 would also require that teachers have formal annual evaluations (currently a formal evaluation only has to occur every three years) and further mandates that the value-added measurement count for 50 percent of the teacher’s annual evaluation. In the past, evaluations have often been criticized for their subjectivity, but this model is a purely objective one and is nothing short of revolutionary.

Another bill, HB 1368 by Rep. Jane Smith (R-Bossier City), would allow local school superintendents to apply to the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (known as BESE) for waivers of many state laws and policies they claim impede them in their ability to improve schools. Waivers could be granted for four years and, during that time, struggling schools would not be taken over by the state. However, after the waiver period, if schools have not turned around, they would immediately be taken over.

Waivers could not be granted for laws dealing with federal mandates, child safety issues or the school accountability program. Other items dealing with curricula, school instructional time and tenure could be waived. For years, superintendents and school boards have complained that their hands were tied by the state. This bill frees them. Though it is completely optional, teacher unions have waged a massive negative fear campaign against this bill.

To give the public a clearer understanding of how their local schools are performing, the governor is recommending substituting the current rating system (where schools are awarded “stars”) with a simpler grade that every person can understand. If this legislation passes, schools will receive a letter grade, “A” through “F”, something every child understands. Two bills have been introduced (HB 925 by Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans and SB 302 by Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie) to make this substitution and, thus far, have been successful.

Two bills have been sponsored to streamline the process for applying for a charter school, and to keep local school systems from manipulating deadlines to keep charters out of their school systems.  SB 344 by Sen. Ann Duplessis (D-New Orleans) and HB 962 by Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge) have been offered to “clean up” the application process and to tighten some existing loopholes in the charter school law. Rep. Carter has also authored a study resolution, HCR 20, that would begin the process of state funding following the child.

Of course, all of these bills are being opposed by the usual team that defends the status quo, so they face an uphill battle. But, their introduction and debate are fueling the passion for education reform and for demanding more for our children. And, for that, the governor should be applauded.

(Brigitte Nieland, Vice President and Council Director for LABI’s Education Council, contributed to this column.)


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