Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Educators blocked from State House in Baton Rouge

Shades of Governor Nikki Haley?

Weeks after sharing a luncheon table with our governor at the White House, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal blocked thousands of educators from gaining entry to the State House in Baton Rouge this morning, while a package of his proposals to dismantle public education in that state was being rolled out in a legislative committee.

There's more to this story -- and it's a good one.

First, Jindal wants to dismantle public schools; that's a given. Education researcher Diane Ravitch published a column about it last week.

I went to Lafayette, La., last week to speak to the Louisiana School Boards Association. These men and women, representing their local schools from across the state, are trying to preserve public education in the face of an unprecedented onslaught by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state's Republican-dominated legislature. Jindal has the backing of the state's corporate leaders, the nation's biggest foundations, and some powerful out-of-state supporters of privatization for his sweeping attack on public education.

Gov. Jindal has submitted a legislative proposal that would offer vouchers to more than half the students in the state; vastly expand the number of privately managed charter schools by giving the state board of education the power to create up to 40 new charter authorizing agencies; introduce academic standards and letter grades for pre-schoolers; and end seniority and tenure for teachers.

Under his plan, the local superintendent could immediately fire any teacher—tenured or not—who was rated "ineffective" by the state evaluation program. If the teacher re-applied to teach, she would have to be rated "highly effective" for five years in a row to regain tenure. Tenure, needless to say, becomes a meaningless term, since due process no longer is required for termination.

The bill is as punitive as possible with respect to public education and teachers. It says nothing about helping to improve or support them. It's all about enabling students to leave public schools and creating the tools to intimidate and fire teachers. This "reform" is not conservative. I would say it is radical and reactionary. But it is in no way unique to Louisiana.

Gov. Jindal is in a race to the bottom with other Republican governors to see who can move fastest to destroy the underpinnings of public education and to instill fear in the hearts of teachers. It's hard to say which of them is worst: Jindal, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio, or ....

I'll finish the list for you, Diane: "...or Nikki Haley of South Carolina."

Second, Louisiana's legislature just came back into session this week, apparently on Monday. They don't have the same legislative schedule as we have. And waiting for their arrival was this package of Jindal bills, all greased and ready to fly.

Media there say he dropped these bills just last week, fully-developed and co-sponsored by their House Speaker and House Education chair, and Senate President and Senate Education chair, and scheduled immediate consideration of them at the session's first committee meeting.

So how did educators react to news of Jindal's full-scale attack on them?

Well, Louisiana's public school educators are apparently better organized and unified that ours here in South Carolina. The teacher's organization there is the Louisiana Association of Educators, and a majority of Louisiana's teachers are active in defending their profession. Further, the state's administrators apparently work hand-in-glove with the LAE, and perhaps so do their school boards, because school district administrators chose to close schools today, to allow thousands of educators to get to Baton Rouge and express themselves with tact and grace to their elected representatives.

Jindal, however -- fearing his state's elementary school teachers, librarians, cafeteria ladies and others -- had a scheme in mind, ready for them.

He locked all the doors but one.

Thousands of education stakeholders flooded the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol Wednesday, but a majority of the teachers, support professionals, administrators – even parents and students – who showed up, were forced to remain outside on the Capitol steps due to the governor’s orders of closing down alternative entrances into the building.

“They wouldn’t let people in because they said the committee rooms were full, but it looked like Governor Jindal was trying to keep educators out of the room during his testimony,” said LAE President Joyce Haynes. “If he really believed in his plan, then he should have taken this opportunity to stand before educators and put it all out on the table; instead, he chose to lock us out of the process.”

School employees from across the state came together in Baton Rouge to speak against the governor’s extreme education agenda brought forth in House Bill 976. The bill calls for taking public tax dollars and turning them over to for-profit charter schools. It also calls for the expansion of a statewide school choice program. Educators want to know why the governor is demanding a rush to vote on such complex legislation that impacts the future of Louisiana’s public schools.

“It is the Legislature’s responsibility to schedule a fair hearing process that allows us to offer input on those bills that affect us,” said Haynes.

Jindal's Chicago-style strong-arm tactics against teachers caught the attention of Louisiana's veteran Senator Mary Landrieu:

U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu sided with school employees as she spoke out against the rush. She agrees that the governor is moving outrageously fast to try to win committee approval for his plan.

"If this is such a great reform package, it should be able to stand the test of review. This is a democracy. This isn't a dictatorship," Landrieu said in an interview.

Educators could not agree more. Several school systems across the state closed so that educators could attend the hearings and advocate on behalf of their school districts. Attendees said they would rather be in the classrooms with their students, but when the intent is to attack hard working professionals by proposing to dismantle neighborhood schools through privatization, teachers will stand up to defend their students and their careers.

“We were forced to attend on a school day,” said Haynes. “Legislators should have made the appropriate move to schedule these hearings when education employees are available to attend, like in the evenings or on the weekends.”

The decision to close schools was made by school boards and administrators, many of whom joined teachers and support professionals at the Capitol in opposition to the legislation.

To make matters worse, when the few educators who were able to get inside the building signed up to speak to the committee, as is a citizen's right, the governor's legislative henchmen adopted a new rule on the spot, requiring teachers to declare what kind of leave they took today to be in Baton Rouge.

Is this not America any longer? Have we elected leaders who have some different vision of what they want America to be, and we just happen to be inconvenient impediments to their establishment of it?

And how soon should we expect to see these sort of tactics played out in Columbia?

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