The number of public school advisory committees has exploded in recent years, which means education debates rage for months before and after the Legislature grapples with the same issues.
One special panel is wrestling with the rollout of a state law that overhauls Louisiana’s special education rules, which is in addition to a standing committee that regularly reviews issues that involve disabled students.
A subcommittee of the Accountability Commission is debating whether to revamp the way public school teachers are evaluated four years after sweeping changes were approved by state lawmakers.
An early childhood education advisory panel — required by state law — has met twice as the state overhauls its pre-K setup.
Whether to change TOPS is the subject of still another committee. And arguments on how public schools are funded are going on for the second year in the Minimum Foundation Program task force.
“There are a whole lot of committees, but there are a whole lot of issues,” said Holly Boffy, who lives in Youngsville.
Boffy is a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is usually the recipient of all those committee reports on school aid, special education and teacher job evaluations.
Most of the committees stem indirectly from a push that began around 2000 to upgrade Louisiana’s long-troubled public school system. Student achievement usually ranks at or near the bottom nationally.
New teacher reviews and pre-K changes were pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2010 and 2012 as part of his bid to upgrade the state’s education landscape.
Members and listeners alike generally contend that the committees offer a valuable service and help improve policies that affect nearly 700,000 public school students statewide.
“This is the third day of the week and I have been here three days in a row,” said Brigitte Nieland, who tracks public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and was on her way to a meeting of a committee reviewing TOPS policies.
“On the one hand, it can be a bit much for those of us who serve on so many of these,” Nieland said. “On the other hand, stakeholder input is very important.
“I don’t think we are just spinning wheels,” Nieland said. “There is always the potential for changes.”
One issue arising from an advisory panel focuses on whether the 2015 Legislature wants to revamp teacher evaluations, which is being debated by the Accountability Commission in advance of its report that will be finalized in February.
The panel on special education may pave the way for cleanup legislation next year amid widespread complaints about a law that offers some special education students new, controversial paths to a high school diploma.
And new rules for pre-K centers, including report cards on their performance, are submitted to the advisory committee before BESE reviews them.
Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Policy Institute for Children, said she urged lawmakers to put the advisory panel on child care changes in state law.
“We saw so many issues coming up and wanted an opportunity to have input,” Bronfin said. “It is a way for us, the public and the advocates and the stakeholders, to have input and get information.”
Boffy, who is co-chairwoman of the Special Education Advisory Panel, said advisory committees provide vital information on often complex issues before final votes at BESE. “There is a great benefit in involving the stakeholders from the beginning,” she said.
Rana Ottallah, a member of the same committee who lives in Metairie, said the group serves a purpose. “SEAP is the voice of special education that few BESE members may not be very familiar with. …” Ottallah wrote in an email response to questions.
Education advisory committee members generally serve on a voluntary basis. Meetings are usually held at the Claiborne Building, which houses the state Department of Education.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, has seen the committees in action both as a member and in the audience.
“I guess, in a perfect world, those types of meetings that solicit stakeholder input would occur before the laws passed, and perhaps we wouldn’t be spending so much time trying to clean up those issues for implementation purposes,” Richard said.
“But we welcome the opportunity to participate,” Richard said. “We see value to it.”