Guest Commentary: State should learn from charters _lowres

Caroline Roemer

After years of bitter battles, high-profile debates over public schools have all but disappeared from the Louisiana Legislature this year.

Lots of bills are awaiting action in the House and Senate education committees, and debates are sure to erupt before adjournment June 8. But almost every proposal on the agenda would represent changes around the edges, not the sweeping policy overhauls that have been hotly contested since 2012.

Why the sudden change?

"My guess is we have debated intensely now for four, five, six, seven, eight years on everything from choice to academics to standards to curriculum to teacher evaluations," said Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

"I think people, I hope, are in a place to see if it works," Roemer said.

The new landscape marks a sharp departure from recent years.

In 2012, Gov. Bobby Jindal's public schools overhaul dominated the session and resulted in a statewide voucher system, tougher rules on teacher tenure and the blueprint for an overhaul of early child care.

In 2013, debate erupted over Common Core, and the same issue sparked heated arguments in 2014 and 2015 inside and outside the Legislature.

Along the way, major disputes surfaced on efforts to roll back the 2012 laws, pitting teacher unions and other traditional public school groups against self-styled education reformers.

This year is different, and Louisiana's seemingly endless budget crisis is often cited as the main factor keeping public school debates on the back burner.

"The budget is consuming everybody's energy," said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association and a key player in many of the major education battles of recent years.

That sole issue, Richard said, means other topics "are getting drowned out by the budget crisis that the state is in."

He added that numerous public education battles over the past several sessions "in addition to the fiscal crisis we are in, there is just some weariness in continuing to fight battles until the dust settles with the budget."

Gov. John Bel Edwards and the House are deadlocked on how to resolve the state's financial problems.

Meanwhile, the Legislature will reach the halfway point of the two-month session this week, with another heavy load of tax bills sure to dominate attention.

The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to hear dozens of tax bills Monday and Tuesday, a huge agenda by any measuring stick.

The list of public school bills awaiting action represents sort of a B-list of topics compared with recent years.

They include bills to ban paddling in public schools, House Bill 497; revamp teacher evaluations, HB532; restrict access to vouchers, SB13; impose a one-year moratorium on authorizing some charter schools, HB239; and trim science and social studies tests in public schools, HB572.

State aid for public schools, called the Minimum Foundation Program, is another question mark.

Edwards and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education have recommended a standstill budget in basic state aid for schools.

Another $18 million would be used for dual enrollment, including $10 million to allow more high school students to earn college or career credit and $8 million for high-needs students.

However, the $3.7 billion MFP proposal — HCR7 — is expected to be returned to BESE for mostly technical changes, and the final product is not expected to make sweeping changes in public schools.

The House Education Committee is set to hear 13 bills Tuesday and Wednesday, with 11 dealing with the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students and other higher-education issues.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, said 2017 is a fiscal session. "People are more focused on fiscal bills," she said of the reduced public school battles.

Some educators say the governor's modest public schools agenda has helped keep education in the background this year.

Former BESE member Linda Johnson, was president of the panel for three years, said that after 17 months in office, she still cannot discern what Edwards' education policy is.

"The three previous administrations, (Mike) Foster, (Kathleen) Blanco and Jindal, truly had an education agenda," Johnson said. "Whether you supported it or not, they all three had it." 

"And I know the man has so many things to deal with in terms of money," Johnson said of Edwards. "But I don't think they have put together a policy that addressed education."

Edwards, whose wife, Donna, was a music teacher, formerly served on the House Education Committee. He was elected governor in 2015 with strong support from the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators, both teacher unions. But this year's agenda has given those groups and other allies little to rally around.

Even the governor's bill to revamp teacher evaluations and give local educators more control has left the LAE and other allies with mixed views about the merits of the legislation.

Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who was heavily involved in the 2012 education overhaul and Common Core debates, said little is happening on public schools because it takes a generation to see the impact of recent changes.

"We just have to hold the line and keep the people that want to return to the old ways from doing so," Appel said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.