It looks like Governor Jindal will be reforming education all over again. Two judges from the 19th District Court of Baton Rouge made sure of that. Yesterday, the Times Picayune reported that Judge Michael Caldwell ruled the last major piece of Jindal’s education reform package unconstitutional, making it the third measure to get that ruling in the last few months. This last piece was the new formula for how teachers are evaluated, paid, and tenured.
Under Act1, the education bill in question, teachers were to go from getting automatic tenure after 3 years to a system where they’d have to rate as highly effective for 5 out of 6. That rating would mostly depend on classroom evaluations, and students’ standardized test scores improving each year. Any teacher rated as ineffective, though, even after one year, would have their pay cut and their tenure taken away. That never went over well with some teachers and administrators, and it was one of the main reasons the Louisiana Federation of Teachers brought this to court.
The other was Jindal’s private school voucher program. Under Act 2, the state began paying private school tuition for students in public schools graded C, D, or F, as long as the students’ family made under 250% of the federal poverty line, $58,000 for a family of four. The state did so by taking money from the public school the child was leaving. That child’s share is calculated via the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP).
But back in November, in the same 19th District court, Judge Tim Kelley ruled that funding unconstitutional, saying the state can’t redirect money meant for public education to private education. That was after Caldwell had ruled another measure of Act 1 unconstitutional. That measure gave local superintendents, and principals, more control over hiring and firing teachers and other employees. It also broke-down the job description and goals for superintendents.
But as it stands now, the three pillars of Jindal’s reform are in legal limbo as they wait on appeals in court. Together they were supposed to change the way students in Louisiana are educated. Giving principals and superintendents more of a say over whom they hire and fire was supposed to put those decisions in the hands of the people closest to the educating. Changing the way teachers are evaluated and basing their pay and tenure more on performance rather than time served was supposed to make them more accountable for what goes on in their classrooms. Some teachers have called it a slick way to end tenure, though. And the voucher program was supposed to be a fail safe for those who are stuck in average to failing schools despite the reforms.
All is not lost for Jindal though. Yesterday, Caldwell didn’t rule any of the proposals in Act1 unconstitutional. He just ruled that the bill was passed unconstitutionally. Apparently, it conflicted with too many state laws for one bill. So, if the eventual Supreme Court appeal fails, legislators can break the Act up and pass it as separate bills this Spring. That’ll be easier said than done, though.
As far as the voucher program, State Superintendent John White has come-up with an alternative just in case Kelley’s ruling stands. Instead of the state taking money from public schools to pay for the vouchers. The state will just have the local school boards redirect the money for it. It costs the state almost $3500 less to pay a child’s private school tuition compared to a public one. Under the unconstitutional plan, the state and the local school board would split that left over money when the child transferred out of the public system. Under White’s back-up plan, the local school boards would now get to keep all of it as an incentive.
When asked during a media conference last week, whether school boards would be accepting money on behalf of students who really weren’t public school students, White replied that they were public school students, and that the boards pay for private services like special education with public money all the time.
That and other measures can be avoided if the state wins on appeal. The first appeal is set for two weeks from today, on the 19th. If the ruling stands, this year’s legislative session will get a lot more interesting, and most likely, just as intense as last year’s.