Commentary on the 2012 Regular Legislative Session: Part I – Education
Reform of K-12 education was the dominant issue of the 2012 Regular Legislative Session.
Elementary, secondary and early childhood education preoccupied lawmakers in the early weeks as the governor and his allies pushed through four major pieces of legislation focused on school choice (House Bill 976/Act 2), teacher tenure (House Bill 974/Act 1), school tuition organizations (House Bill 969/Act 25) and early childhood education (Senate Bill 581/Act 3).
Two of the measures—school choice and teacher tenure—generated the most controversy, with proponents and opponents packing the State Capitol and legislators holding marathon committee hearings and chamber debates. In the end, all four bills were approved with minor but significant changes and signed ceremoniously by the governor midway through the session.
Act 2 contains a collection of school choice plans inspired by initiatives used in other states.
Louisiana’s implementation of these programs deserves special scrutiny to see if the changes are being made with appropriate accountability to the public.
The bill expands Louisiana’s current private school voucher program, which is limited to Orleans Parish, into a statewide initiative. It creates a new category of charter schools and charter school authorizers, gives parents the right to petition to move failing schools into the state-run Recovery School District, and provides more options for high school students through an expanded course choice program that allows them to take instruction outside the traditional classroom.
The expanded voucher program—or Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Act—offers a new option to lower-income parents of children attending public schools that have been graded C, D or F for educational performance by the state. They can send their children to one of the state-approved non-public schools that have elected to participate in the program. The parents must fall below an income threshold of 250 percent of the federal poverty level to be eligible for the program, or $57,625 per year for a family of four.
The private school tuition would be paid from the Minimum Foundation Program, a state-approved funnel of money to local school districts that until now was distributed only to public schools. The New Orleans voucher program has used state general fund appropriations. Critics have questioned the legality of using Minimum Foundation Program money to fund non-public school education and could challenge the legislation in court.
The voucher program initially may affect several thousand students. Although this is but a fraction of the number of students who might be eligible, the voucher plan could play a successful role in elevating student achievement and retention in this limited, niche market for education reform. For example, as PAR research has shown, the state’s improved dropout numbers in recent years have been partly the result of a large variety of small-scale efforts, each aimed at addressing a few hundred or few thousand at-risk students in particular circumstances or school systems.
Act 2 also expands the state’s charter school program by forming a new category of charter schools. These schools would be approved by local charter school authorizers instead of local school boards or the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Such local authorizers may be a nonprofit corporation with a philanthropic mission, a Louisiana public postsecondary institution or a nonprofit corporation established by a parish or municipality.
Another component of the bill is the so-called parent trigger. If a school has sustained a D or F grade three consecutive years, parents can petition to have the school transferred into the state-run Recovery School District sooner than might otherwise occur under current law. In order to request the transfer, parents of a majority of students attending the school must sign a petition that is then submitted to the state Department of Education.
The last piece of Act 2 sets up the Course Choice Program. Under this provision, students can take courses outside of their school. Those courses can be offered by postsecondary institutions, online or virtual providers, or business and industry groups. Using Minimum Foundation Program money, the state will pay the cost of the courses for students attending C, D or F public schools or for students whose schools do not offer the needed class. Students attending A or B schools and home-schooled students also will have access to these courses, but they will have to pay for them.
Act 2 creates a number of tasks for the state Department of Education. For the voucher program, the department must set up processes to determine the eligibility of students and non-public schools that wish to participate in the program, develop an application and notification process for students, and establish a random selection procedure in case there are more applications than there are seats available—all in time for the 2012-2013 school year that begins in August. Department staff also must develop an accountability system for those students in the voucher program and complete it by Aug. 1. Additionally, the department must create an authorization process for course providers, a certification process for organizations that want to be local charter authorizers and a framework for the parent trigger component.
This bill is extraordinarily complex. Although many people had discussed these types of programs long before the session, the details were not known until the bill was filed just before the legislative session started, leaving little time for the public to digest a large amount of new information. The dismay over this situation was compounded by the speed with which the measure was approved by the Legislature. The strategy seemed clearly designed to compress the time in which questions could be asked or opposition organized, and it was successful.
The implementation already has encountered controversy. Media reports pointed to one of the non-public schools listed as willing to take 315 voucher students next year. The school did not appear to have either adequate classroom space or teachers to handle the extra enrollment, which would be more than double the current school head count. Further, the head of the school indicated he planned to raise the school’s tuition to just under the Minimum Foundation Program allocation per-pupil for his parish. That news raised eyebrows among legislators, who questioned how closely the state Department of Education was monitoring the qualifications of the non-public schools wishing to take part in the voucher program. The state superintendent of education was left to explain that the department is still in the preliminary stages of setting up the voucher program and that nothing is final yet. The episode helped to demonstrate that parental choice, which should be an important factor in determining non-public school options, should not be the only criterion.
At the beginning of the session PAR questioned the legislative strategy of rushing the bills through the process and resisting amendments. In particular PAR was and still is concerned about adequate accountability being in place for the voucher and course choice programs. Fortunately, both the House and Senate took the trouble to adopt helpful amendments, some of which protect against abuse and misuse of public money. The administration agreed to require the state superintendent of education to develop an accountability framework for voucher students attending non-public schools. However, the shape of that framework was not spelled out, meaning stakeholders need to pay close attention to what the Department of Education puts together between now and its deadline of Aug. 1.
Act 1—the teacher tenure measure—also generated controversy as teachers and school officials from across the state flooded the State Capitol to voice their displeasure. The law significantly changes the teacher tenure process by making it easier to let go of poor teachers while also making job security much harder to obtain and keep. Act 1 also limits local school boards to a policymaking role, holds superintendents accountable for meeting specific school and district performance targets, and makes performance and effectiveness the primary criteria for determining which employees to let go first when layoffs are required.
Here again, the administration at first held firm against any changes in the bill and then relented on a few aspects. The bill’s original tenure provisions were revised slightly to allow those teachers who are tenured as of Sept. 1, 2012, to retain their tenure while being subject to the new requirements going forward. The bill was amended to require that teachers be rated “highly effective” for five out of six years to gain tenure rather than achieving such a rating for five consecutive years. In addition, in cases when a teacher is rated “highly effective” on the growth portion of his or her evaluation but “ineffective” on the observation part, the teacher will be allowed to receive a second observation by a three-person team selected by the superintendent.
Officials with the state’s two largest teacher representative groups—the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators—have made it clear they find the measure unacceptable, and the LFT has filed a lawsuit challenging it.
Act 1 offers the opportunity for a much-needed revamp of the state’s teacher tenure system, and some of its provisions align with PAR’s past research conclusions. For example, PAR previously has recommended that tenure decisions be based on meeting a specific standard over a set period of time, that personnel matters involving teachers be handled by the district superintendent rather than the school board and that evaluation models include assessment of student achievement.
Still, a word of caution is warranted. Louisiana has a long history of political patronage and intimidation related to public jobs, and we should not assume that we now live in an era free of these afflictions. As the new tenure standards take effect, abuses should be noted and corrected. As PAR has recommended in the past, teachers should be protected from politically motivated influence and arbitrary dismissals.
Although better autonomy for school superintendents has been gained, some degree of government transparency has been lost with Act 1. The law outlines how local school boards should leave all district personnel decisions to the superintendent. In stripping out language in the existing law that gives local boards the power to approve or disapprove of the superintendent’s hiring and placement recommendations, Act 1 also removes the requirement that the public be allowed to comment before such decisions are finalized. The removal of the opportunity for a public airing of major hiring decisions could be consequential in some circumstances.
Rebates and Student Tuition Organizations
Act 25 is the third piece of the governor’s education reform package. It permits Louisiana individual and corporate income taxpayers to donate money to approved nonprofit organizations, or school tuition organizations, to be used for private school scholarships for students from low-income households. In exchange, those who make such donations will receive a rebate from the state. The amount of the rebate will be limited to the amount of the donation that actually is spent for a scholarship, and up to 5 percent of the taxpayer’s total contribution will be held by the student tuition organization to pay for administrative and personnel costs. The organizations must submit independent financial audits to the state.
The donor cannot specify which private school or student would receive the grant, except for students with a disability requiring special education. The private schools are not limited to accepting scholarship students moving out of failing public schools, although priority must be given to qualified students who have been in D or F graded schools. In households that meet the income requirements, all children entering kindergarten are qualified to participate in the program.
The Minimum Foundation Program would save money for each qualified scholarship student who would otherwise have enrolled in a public school. The MFP overall is funded according to the number of public school students in the state: the fewer the students, the smaller the MFP. Because of the new law’s limits on private school tuition support, a rebate to cover a private school scholarship should be less than the amount the MFP would spend on a student in a public school. So, in theory, the rebate system could result in a net gain for the state if savings to the MFP are greater than the state rebates paid to the donors.
The Legislative Fiscal office notes that while these net savings are possible, they cannot be assured. Some students will participate in the program even if they would have paid to go to a private school anyway. For example, parents in a low-income household might not be able to afford to send their kindergartner to a private school, but a grandparent or other relative might have planned to pay for the student’s full ride through a private elementary school. Under the rebate program, that student would attend private school at the expense of the state, not the grandparents. The financial impact of the program should be monitored closely to determine the real gain or cost to the state in the long run.
Early childhood education
The fourth major piece of the governor’s education reform package is Act 3, which orders the state Department of Education to create an integrated network designed to consolidate all of the state’s early childhood education programs that are funded either through state or federal monies. In addition, the measure orders the department to establish a definition of kindergarten readiness and to determine performance standards for children under the age of 3 and academic standards for children ages 3 and 4. The department also must create a uniform assessment and accountability system that includes a letter grade for early childhood education programs.
PAR has long been a proponent of strengthening the state’s early childhood education efforts. The state has made important gains in this area over time. But Louisiana’s current system of early childhood education is a hodgepodge of programs funded by different sources with inadequate coordination or assessment about how effective they are. In addition, not all of the children who could benefit from the programs are being served.
Breakaway school districts
Proposals for smaller, independent new school districts turned into one of the most controversial topics of the session and foreshadowed a policy debate that is expected to intensify in the future.
A pair of bills—SB 299, which was a constitutional amendment, and SB 563, its companion statutory legislation—called for a relatively affluent area of East Baton Rouge Parish to break from the existing school district to form its own district. The Southeast Baton Rouge Community School System would have been the fourth small district to leave the East Baton Rouge Parish School System; the cities of Baker, Central and Zachary have all formed their own school districts. What was unique about the proposed Southeast district was that the area is not incorporated. The constitutional amendment failed to pass by a narrow margin and the effort was defeated.
Two other bills related to breakaway school districts—SB 305 and HB 609—would have eliminated the requirement for a state constitutional amendment every time a new school district is proposed. A constitutional amendment for a new district requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate, a majority vote in a statewide referendum and a majority vote in the affected parish. The proposed bills would have allowed new schools districts to be formed with a simple majority vote of legislators and a vote in the areas directly affected. Neither bill made it out of the Legislature.
More broadly, these breakaway school district debates highlight the need for a deeper examination of the potential impact of smaller school districts and whether the state should develop a framework for how such districts could be created. Several states provide examples of a proliferation of so-called independent school districts, including neighboring Texas.
As they grapple with this issue again in the future, legislators must also decide whether they want to change or lessen their role in shaping this public education issue. If legislators and voters were to approve a measure like SB 305 or HB 609, lawmakers essentially would be weakening their control over the creation of new districts. If breakaway school districts become a growing trend, a number of state and local policy issues should be addressed to anticipate the impact. For instance, breakaway districts have implications for employee retirement and health insurance costs, the potential re-segregation of districts either by race or income and the impact on the Minimum Foundation Program. Under the state’s Constitution, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the state’s children are educated lies with the Legislature. Lawmakers should think long and hard before they lessen their influence.
Other noteworthy bills
After failing to gain enough traction over the past three years, proponents of term limits for school board members succeeded in winning passage of HB 292 (Act 386), which calls for local option elections on the question. Under the measure, voters in every parish except Jefferson and Lafayette—which already have term limits—will decide in November whether their school board members should have term limits. If voters say yes, then the school board members in their parish will be limited to three consecutive four-year terms.
PAR in 2009 supported the idea that school board members should have term limits, arguing that they were a way to bring in much-needed fresh ideas. Still, the decision to impose term limits should be a local matter and the legislation appropriately gives local voters a chance to decide for themselves.
In addition, legislators approved HB 293, which ends tenure for school bus drivers beginning with any drivers hired after July 1, 2012. Louisiana is the only state in the nation that allows school bus drivers to acquire tenure.
On a lighter note, legislators also passed a concurrent resolution urging every legislator, statewide elected official and member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to volunteer to substitute-teach in a public elementary or secondary school for at least two full school days. While officials are not required to do so, it will be interesting to see how many take up the challenge and what they learn from it.
The 2012 legislative session was an eventful one for public education in Louisiana. The new laws could have a positive impact on the quality of the state’s education system. The most critical task now is to develop approval and eligibility procedures for the voucher, course choice and tax rebate plans and to establish accountability methods so taxpayers can be confident their money is being well-spent. PAR will continue to monitor the Department of Education’s progress on these fronts.
The state’s focus on K-12 education is a welcome one. But the major proponents of the reforms seem to have a singular fixation on parental choice as the sole criterion for regulation and accountability. Parental choice is important, but the rest of the state has a stake in the educational success of Louisiana’s children as well. An over-reliance on parental choice in measuring student attainment and determining the quality and eligibility of schools receiving state support could affect the positive momentum Louisiana has shown through student and school performance accountability.
Louisiana over the years has made progress with education reforms, including the push for accountability in the late 1990s, the expansion of pre-K education and charter schools, an improved teacher evaluation system and better measures of school performance. A variety of niche programs on both the state and local levels have helped improve the state’s graduation rate and have reduced the number of dropouts. The changes in the recent legislative session could build on that foundation and keep Louisiana headed in an upward direction. That type of success will best be achieved if state leaders and policymakers evaluate each new program objectively and are willing to make any refinements or program cancellations that may be necessary to provide an effective and trustworthy education system.
PAR also will release a separate commentary on the overall Legislative session.