Thursday, March 15, 2012

Louisiana's teachers denigrated by governor, lawmakers

Is this what the new conservative world order will look like? Teachers locked out of their State House, interrogated by lawmakers for daring to speak up on the issues that affect them?

Is this where we're headed in South Carolina, too?

With the 12-6 vote -- which came almost 11 hours the committee convened -- two of the four principal measures of Jindal's overhaul of primary and secondary education are on their way to the House floor. The vote for House Bill 976 by Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, fell along party lines, with the exception of Democratic Vice Chairman Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer, who joined the majority Republicans. Several completely party-line votes on amendments preceded the final vote, with Carter and Jindal prevailing on every one.

Keep this in mind: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was re-elected last November and apparently seized control of the state Board of Education too, appointing his own hand-picked "reformer" to be state superintendent.

That's because, in Louisiana, the state board of education hires the state superintendent, and the state board is elected by voters. Jindal ran a slate of candidates for the state board, funded by out-of-state "reform" organizations, and got his slate elected. Check.

Then, flush with out-of-state financial power, he drafted a set of bills to take control completely away from local boards of education, got the four leaders of the legislature to sign onto the bills as co-sponsors -- and, this being Louisiana, I'm sure no favors or special considerations were involved in the persuasion -- and dropped the bills at the legislature five days before the session began. Checkmate.

And then, he got the four leaders to schedule immediate consideration of his bills at their first committee meetings of the new session -- yesterday and today -- before local boards, administrators and educators could have time to coordinate.

Still, educators in Louisiana's clearly did a marvelous job of raising sufficient Hell to garner national media attention.

With hundreds of public school teachers filling overflow committee rooms and the front steps of the Capitol, Jindal began the proceedings in a rare appearance before a legislative committee. ...As he has in previous appearances, Jindal cast opponents as "the coalition of the status quo."

The answer from teachers, the leading critics of the governor's overall strategy, is that House Bill 976 and companion bills effectively shift financing away from public education and punish public school teachers, without doing enough to improve the overall system or require accountability from the private schools that are in line for public money. There was also considerable debate about the process, with Democrats lambasting Carter and the administration for pushing complex legislation on the third day of the session and putting strictures on the terms of the debate.
In a sometimes terse exchange, House Minority Leader John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, questioned the governor on the legalities of his voucher plans. Edwards, echoing the position of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and Louisiana Association of Educators, argued that one specific constitutional provision directs the MFP for public schools.
Edwards also tried to turn Republican orthodoxy on Jindal, questioning a statewide requirement that would effectively force a local school district to give up its local tax money that would be part of the MFP financing for a voucher student if that student remained in public school. Edwards called it "top-down, big government."

Jindal said, "If this was a top-down, big government bill, I think you would sponsor that."

Whew. A governor with no respect for lawmakers who question his ideas.

Sound familiar?

As for accountability, what's the likelihood that we'll hear these same arguments and outcomes when our own House takes up its voucher bill later this month?

Democrats lost on votes for amendments that would have limited vouchers to state financing. They also lost on applying testing requirements to all students in voucher schools. The Jindal plan tests only voucher recipients, just like a pilot voucher program in New Orleans. Catholic school leaders, including the bishops, do not want the state testing system. Lobbyist Danny Loar said Catholic schools already use separate test, with the results reported on a diocesan basis. Parents of voucher students, meanwhile, also will get the results of their students. But the private schools would not get a publicly reported letter grade, as public schools do.

As well as the attacks on educators who dare to raise their questions:

Besides the merits of the legislation, teachers' very presence at the Capitol was a flashpoint.

Several school systems canceled classes either Wednesday or today because of the number of teachers who said they wanted to use leave to come to the Capitol. Before testimony began, Republicans on a 10-8 vote pushed through a rule requiring teachers -- if they were coming from any of the scores of systems that remained open -- to say whether they used personal leave or sick leave to come.

Rep. Pat Smith, a former East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member, lambasted the rule as "intimidation" and "an attempt to embarrass people" with a legitimate right to address lawmakers.

That was yesterday, when Jindal's bills were addressed in the State House. Today, they were scheduled to come before the Senate Education Committee.


Well before 8 a.m. Wednesday, hundreds of public school teachers filled the steps of the Louisiana Capitol. By the time the House Education Committee convened to discuss Gov. Bobby Jindal's overhaul of primary and secondary education, most of them were still there, waiting to get into the building.

State policy and legislative security officials conceded that they restricted access to two of the three Capitol entrances usually open to the public. Only staff and credentialed news media and lobbyists could enter through those doors. That left just one entrance, at the top of the front steps, with the assembled teachers funneled through one metal detector. That door leads into the marbled Memorial Hall, the vaulted lobby between the Senate and House chambers.

Capt. Doug Cain, spokesman for the State Police, said the decision was made jointly by the Legislature's security leaders and sergeant-at-arms, Capitol Police and State Police.

Several teachers and others complained they could not get in the Capitol to testify. Cain said no one was kept out, but he said the admission process was slow.

"Everyone who wanted to testify was able to, so from that standpoint today was a success," he said Wednesday.

But Ponchatoula High School Principal Danny Strickland said it was no such thing. "I think it was by design," he said. "It had to be. I was here before daybreak." When the committee started, "I was still outside." One his veteran teachers, Kevin Corvetto, said: "We had women who had to go the restroom. That became an issue." Strickland said, "They went across the street to another building."

Marie estimated that at the crowd's peak, about 2,000 people were gathered on the Capitol steps, the education committee room or five overflow rooms set up by House officials so the public could monitor the debate.

Two thousand educators -- classroom teachers, principals and superintendents, working hand in hand -- mobilized in less than one week to express their opposition to a repugnant governor's power grab.

That governor's response was to block access to the Capitol, ram his bills through marathon committee meetings in the first week of session, and take local control and school funding completely away from local school boards.

Remember this, South Carolina's educators, when our own voucher bill comes before the full House in another week or two. Take heed from the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Louisiana: What is happening there will happen here soon.

What will we do to prepare?

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