By Jan Moller
The first week of the 2012 Legislature was unlike any opening weeks that had come before. In the span of two days of marathon hearings, the education committees in the House and Senate approved a massive overhaul of Louisiana’s K-12 public education system by lopsided margins.
That means that as early as next week, the full House and Senate could be voting on bills to eliminate most job-protections for public school teachers, dramatically expand the private-school voucher program for low-income students and make the funding for that program a constitutionally protected entitlement.
That the bills passed was no surprise. It’s been clear for weeks that Gov. Bobby Jindal had the votes lined up to get them out of committee and on to the floor. The real surprise was just how little time was spent digging into the fine print of the legislation, which promises to change the face of public education in Louisiana for decades to come.
Legislators asked few substantive questions, and spent remarkably little time combing through the fine print of the bills, which are lengthy and detailed in scope. Amendments seeking to add more transparency and accountability were shot down.
The speed with which the bills were rushed through surprised and dismayed even those who are generally supportive of the legislations’ goals, including the Public Affairs Research Council:
The committee stage is an appropriate venue to address controversial issues and draft carefully discussed changes to the bills. It is difficult to imagine that this process can be performed adequately and with due respect to the magnitude of these reforms if all the initiatives are to be debated and passed by committee in a single day. Haste is a poor companion of genuine progress.
And as The Times-Picayune pointed out, the committee process is normally where substantive amendments are discussed and adopted. Once a bill gets to the floor, major changes are rarely made – at least not without consent from the bill’s author.
The Louisiana Budget Project has been clear where it stands on this issue: If public-school money should follow students, whether they attend a public or private school, then transparency and accountability also must follow those dollars. That means private schools that accept vouchers should be required to give standardized tests to all their students, and be subject to the same letter grades as public schools.
The bills as they currently stand fall far short of that standard.
LBP is not alone in pressing for more accountability. This week saw two prominent good-government groups issue their own recommendations, which echoed many of the same themes. In New Orleans, the Bureau of Governmental Research issued a report calling for changes to the voucher plan, including a requirement that private schools accepting vouchers be required to outperform the public schools from which they draw students.
All schools should be required to meet the standards as a prerequisite to program participation and to maintain them thereafter. Schools that fail to maintain the specified standards should lose their program eligibility.
The BGR report goes on to suggest that the funding for the voucher plan be considered as a separate line-item in the state budget, rather than included in the Minimum Foundation Program formula that funds public K-12 schools, as a way of minimizing potential harm to local school districts.
PAR, meanwhile, takes a different approach by looking at the potential for having vastly different performance standards for students in public schools versus voucher schools. While public school students who fail state standardized tests are required to undergo remedial instruction or repeat a grade, voucher students would have an easier time.
The plan appears to allow voucher students who fail the high-stakes tests to be socially promoted with few questions asked. Further measures should be taken to implement consequences if those students fail or, at a minimum, there should be some requirement for a remedial plan.
Unfortunately, the members of the education committees spent precious little time on these important questions of accountability, and neither did those who came to testify. And if history is any guide, the story will be much the same when the bills get to the floor.
The good news is that even if the governor’s bills should pass, there might still be time for a full and open debate about accountability.
In the House, Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport, has filed HB 351. It’s a simple, two-page bill that requires the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop an accountability system for voucher schools that is “comparable to and contain(s) the same components, requirements, and criteria as the school and district accountability system for public schools.”
On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, has filed a pair of similar bills: SB 179, which would require private schools with an enrollment of 50 or more students that accept state dollars to abide by the Louisiana School and District Accountability System; and SB 180, which would make private-school teachers subject to the same certification requirements and evaluation standards that apply to their public school counterparts.
Given the tenor of the session so far, it’s hard to imagine any of these bills becoming law. But if they lead to a fair, detailed and open debate about what type of accountability should be required as Louisiana embarks on a massive experiment in public education, it would be a vast improvement over what we’ve seen so far.