The Senate Education Committee on Thursday approved two of the three bills that are part of Gov. Bobby Jindal's public schools agenda.
On a vote of 5-1 the panel forwarded legislation that could ignite a major expansion of state aid for students to attend private schools.
The vote was 5-1.
Earlier Wednesday afternoon, the committee approved a bill that would toughen rules on teacher tenure, which is a form of job protection.
That vote was 6-1.
Senate Bill 597 would allow low-income students who attend "C," "D" and "F" schools could apply for state aid to attend private or parochial schools.
Estimated income levels range from $50,000-$55,000 for a family of four.
Backers said the change, which they call scholarships, would give families a way out of failing schools.
Teacher union leaders and other critics said it would be unfair, and possibly unconstitutional, to spend state and local school aid now reserved for public schools for students to attend private schools.
They call the aid vouchers.
Up to 380,000 public school students could qualify.
However, state Superintendent of Education John White has said about 2,000 families are expected to apply if the bill wins final approval.
Senate Bill 603 would install more stringent rules for teacher tenure, which is a form of job protection.
A similar bill was approved shortly after midnight Thursday morning by the House Education Committee at the end of a meeting that lasted about 16 hours.
Hundreds of teachers and others were at the State Capitol to hear the debate.
Under SB603, teachers would lose tenure and become an "at will" employee if they are rated as ineffective. Superintendents could then launch dismissal proceedings.
In addition, new teachers would have to be rated as "highly effective" - likely in the top 10 percent statewide - for five consecutive years to earn tenure.
A leader of the Louisiana Association of Educators, or LAE, testified Thursday that the proposal would freeze pay for many public school teachers.
Instead of customary pay raises based on experience and other factors merit pay will be the key result, said Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the LAE, which is one of the state's two largest teacher unions.
"We will be one of the first states in the country to do that," Walker-Jones told the Senate Education Committee on Thursday morning.
Walker-Jones noted that state Superintendent of Education John White testified earlier Thursday that there is no link between tenure and student achievement.
Jindal, who also testified, has said the bill is aimed at ensuring top-flight teachers in every classroom.
Experts say the quality of a teacher is one of the top factors in a student's success.
But Walker-Jones said the change would mean that high-achieving teachers would get extra pay by freezing the salaries of others in a "taking from the bottom and giving to the top" setup.
He said that, as a practical matter, teacher tenure would become an illusion.
Russ Wise, a school board member from St. John the Baptist Parish, urged lawmakers to slow down work on the bill in hopes of arriving at a consensus. Wise called the proposal a "top down" plan that lacks input from teachers and local school board members.
state Superintendent of Education John White countered that Louisiana's teacher job protection law needs changes in part because it has no impact on student achievement. "Tenure has been proven by no study, by no research, and by no one I believe you will hear from today to have any discernible impact on learning," White told the Senate Education Committee.
Instead, White said, tenure ends up making it hard for officials to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.
White made his comments as the committee began a day-long hearing on three bills that make up Jindal's sweeping plans to overhaul public schools in Louisiana.
White said that, under current rules, 98.3 percent of teachers get satisfactory ratings under the current tenure law, which requires teacher reviews once every three years.
He said that contradicts the fact that about one third of public school students are performing below grade level.
The bill, which is sponsored by Appel, would mean that any teacher that gets an "ineffective" rating would lose tenure.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said the panel would spend about seven hours on the tenure measure and another proposal that would expand state aid for certain students to attend private and parochial schools.
A third measure, which is aimed at making early childhood education classes more effective, is also on the agenda.
Backers say all three bills are getting extraordinary attention on the first week of the session because of the urgency for repairing public schools, which have long been rated among the lowest-scoring in the nation.
Critics contend Jindal and his allies are trying to ram the bills through the Legislature without adequate hearings.