Dust Settled, Lawmakers More Measured on Education Reforms

May 23, 2013
Originally published on July 24, 2013 4:24 pm

Earlier this month, Louisiana's Supreme Court ruled that the way the state's private school voucher program was paid for was unconstitutional. It can't be paid for through the Minimum Foundation Formula, or MFP -- the pool of money that supports public education.

Rep. Kirk Talbot, a Republican from New Orleans who voted in favor of the education overhaul Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed hard for last year, says the missteps in the funding of the voucher program gave some in the legislature, " a little bit of heartburn."

Talbot says the legislature will find a way to keep the voucher program going -- possibly, as the governor has suggested, by moving a $45 million general fund line item into the state budget.

Rep. Ted James, a Democrat from Baton Rouge, agrees.

"With the vouchers, I came here, honestly, totally against the idea. But, as I've been serving a little over year and had conversations with parents and students, I've warmed up to the idea. But I'm more concerned with funding it properly, outside the MFP," James says.

But even before the court decision affecting vouchers came down, the legislature appeared to be cooling on last year's education reforms. Several bills to slow or counter the implementation of the changes have passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan majorities.

The other big part of the overhaul that got passed last year had to do with evaluations of teachers, and also individual public schools and districts. So far this year, a bill has passed the House that would delay disciplinary action against teachers rated "ineffective" (HB 160). Another bill (HB 466) would put new school performance score calculations that would include the ACT on hold.

"I think sometimes when you do massive reforms, maybe there's unintended consequences," Talbot explains, confessing that he has no background as an educator and didn't attend public school. "Now that the smoke is cleared and the rhetoric is gone, just like anything else, there are problems along the way and we adjusted."

The House also overwhelmingly passed a bill by Rep. James (HB 115), which would allow parents to petition to get their kids' school out of the Recovery School District -- if the administration there fails the turn it around. Last year, Rep. Wesley Bishop proposed a very similar measure as an amendment to Act 2 that would have allowed that, and it was resoundingly rejected.

"Last year there was a big push to not support amendments that weren't supported by the author of the bill, and I understand that," James says. Jindal's overhaul included a parent trigger for city and parish schools to be transferred to the RSD, but parents of the seven RSD schools in Baton Rouge, all rated "F", were left out. "I think it was important that they had that option."

But asked if the governor would sign these bills that have sort of moderated, slowed down a little bit the big package that he put forth last session, both Talbot and James were skeptical.

"With my bill in particular, if the governor really believes in choice and wants to empower all of our parents, I would look forward to having a signing ceremony with him, but I don't know," James says.

Rep. Talbot authored a bill passed last year (Act 25) that established an alternative voucher program, funded, like the voucher program in Florida, by private donations, which he says is, "the better way to do vouchers."

"The voucher on average is about 80 percent of the average Catholic school tuition -- since most private schools are Catholic -- so if a child got the scholarship, their parents are going to be $800 to $1200 short, so they're going to have to put up some money and have some skin in the game, which I thought was important. And,  if the private schools aren't doing their job, then the private donations aren't going to come."

Talbot's voucher program is supposed to kick off this fall, but it's in peril, mixed up in the debate over tax exemptions. The Republican lawmaker is hoping that will get sorted out when the state budget proposal reaches the Senate.

"I think there was a lot of confusion that that rebate bill would cost the state money. It really does not at all. The fiscal note on it was all zeroes."

James' parent trigger bill and the proposals to put new school performance calculations on hold and postpone the punitive consequences of new teacher evaluations are awaiting Senate action too.

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