Louisiana lawmakers are in committee hearings Wednesday and Thursday to debate Governor Bobby Jindal's aggressive plan for reforming the state's public school system. Hundreds of Louisiana teachers flooded the State Capitol this morning to protest the bills.
In a rare appearance before a legislative committee, Governor Jindal said his education reform plan is constitutional, despite opposition from Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite. Rep. Edwards said the voucher program violates the state constitution's requirements for funding public school systems.
"When we waste nearly a billion dollars of state taxpayer dollars on failing schools, 44% of those schools are failing schools, a third of our kids are below grade level, we're not fulfilling the constitutional obligations today," said Governor Jindal.
The public funding expansion plan would provide state-funded tuition for children in low-performing public schools, and would make it easier for private groups to run public charter schools.
HB 974 seeks to "empower effective teachers, support ineffective teachers who want to improve, and rethinks district management to prioritize kids, not adults."
Teachers from all across Louisiana testified against the proposed changes, one of which could affect their tenure. Right now, teachers can achieve tenure after three years, but that could change to five years.
President of the Red River United Federation of Teachers, Jackie Lansdale, was one of the teachers who testified during the House committee hearing. She thinks the plan to reward teachers based on student achievement and remove teachers who teach under-performing students is unfair.
"One thing I think our governor has not done, he's not looking at the other issues that have to be factored in, the huge poverty that we see," said Lansdale.
Governor Bobby Jindal described these three education bills under consideration as "historic."
"These bills help to define who we are as a state today, and what kind of state we aspire to be tomorrow," Governor Jindal said.
Lansdale says she speaks for other educators, when she says she disagrees with his stance.
"I hope the public wakes up and sees what this governor is doing to what we consider a human right, a civil right-- the opportunity for every child to avail themselves to a quality public education. Our governor is fast chiseling away at that," Lansdale said.
The political nature of the issue was evident before the hearing began, as hundreds of teachers and school employees crowded into the Capitol, many wearing red in a show of solidarity against Jindal's proposals. And it was evident as the hearing opened when Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, moved to require that witnesses be asked whether they were taking sick leave to attend the hearing.
Some school systems in the state announced that schools would be closed Wednesday or Thursday, because of expected teacher absences. While some teachers made it clear they were taking personal leave days, Landry wondered if some were abusing sick time.
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, was among committee members who opposed Landry's motion, labeling it as a punitive and unnecessary. Landry's motion was approved 10-8, but it was unclear whether anyone who refused to answer would be denied a chance to testify.
Jackie Lansdale said she was shocked at the way teachers were treated at the hearing. "It is insulting that they asked us to say if we took a sick day," said Lansdale. "It was an intimidation factor." She said the environment felt unwelcoming to teachers.
Superintendent of Caddo Parish Schools, Dr. Gerald Dawkins, said he gave permission for certain Caddo teachers to attend without taking a sick day. Some Bossier Parish teachers who plan to go to Baton Rouge on Thursday morning are reported as using "personal days," which is allowed.
Dr. Dawkins went to Baton Rouge to see how the reform package would impact Caddo Parish. He says he is looking at the potential for vouchers and scholarships, and how that would affect the Caddo Parish School Board budget. A big concern of the CPSB budget session on Tuesday was a line item about how the Finance Department would have to plan for vouchers and scholarships.
The major piece of legislation debated in Baton Rouge on Wednesday morning was the complex measure combining the expansion of the voucher program, already operating on a limited basis in New Orleans, with the charter school expansion.
"I think the dollars should follow the student," said Governor Jindal. "The student shouldn't be forced to follow the dollars. I think those dollars are meant to educate our children. There is a better way to educate our children, and that's what we should be about."
The House reconvened early Wednesday evening, and the Senate Education committee will meet Thursday.
You can view the Governor's legislative package here: http://www.gov.state.la.us/assets/docs/2012%20GOV%20JINDAL%20LEGISLATIVE%20PACKAGE%20(2).pdf