A ruling Wednesday by the state Supreme Court has ended a 33-month fight over teacher job rights and preserves a key part of what Gov. Bobby Jindal has called his biggest accomplishment as governor.
The court did so by concluding that a 2012 state law that makes it harder for about 50,000 public school teachers to earn and retain tenure is constitutional.
What it means is that the third part of Jindal’s public schools overhaul, and the one that sparked bitter arguments in the Legislature and courts, will remain in place.
New job rules for teachers and the expansion of vouchers statewide make up a big part of the governor’s “swinging for the fences” education package that he pushed through the Legislature after breezing to a second term in 2011.
Those changes, and a third law to redo early childhood education in Louisiana, are likely to be touted in Jindal’s long-shot bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
But they also will trigger more of the vitriolic criticism that accompanied the tenure law, which the governor unveiled on Jan. 17, 2012, in a speech to the Jindal-friendly Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
Jindal said tenure changes were needed because teachers landed lifetime job protection if they “merely survived for three years” and could not lose it “short of selling drugs in the workplace.”
Teacher union leaders seethed, said the governor had maligned the profession and still resent the comments more than two years later.
However, the tenure proposal was the start of months of arguments in the Legislature, including charges that the bill was being railroaded through the process and illegally included too many subjects.
Committee hearings went on for hours.
Teachers descended on the State Capitol, and some charged that they were barred from the building.
Despite threats of lawsuits, the tenure and voucher bills zoomed through the Legislature in just 23 days and consumed more than 50 hours of discussions.
Louisiana suddenly became a national leader in the teacher tenure debate, which sparked attention in June when a California judge struck down that state’s teacher tenure laws.
But the future of the law here, and a big part of Jindal’s legacy, has been the subject of litigation since the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, or LFT, challenged the legality of the tenure overhaul shortly after it won approval.
The LFT’s key argument was that the measure — it is called Act 1 — was unconstitutional because it contained more than one topic.
The chief aim of the legislation was to strengthen the tenure law, which was set up to ensure that teachers were not fired arbitrarily.
Backers said the changes were long overdue, especially in a state long known for poor academic achievement, even though 97 percent of public school teachers were typically rated as satisfactory on job reviews.
Yet, the law also requires performance objectives for local superintendents, redefines the role of local school boards and bans the exclusive use of seniority in layoff decisions.
State District Judge Michael Caldwell, of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, agreed with the LFT in March 2013.
He did so again in January 2014 after the state Supreme Court vacated his first ruling and told him to take another look.
All that ended on Wednesday.
The state’s top court, without dissent, reversed Caldwell and said all the topics on the law enjoyed a “natural connection,” which is education.
Jimmy Faircloth, the attorney who defended the law, said the ruling was not surprising because courts have long given the Legislature wide latitude in bundling topics into a single bill.
“It is really a separation of powers issue,” Faircloth said. “And the court will defer to the legislative arena to the greatest extent that it can.”
Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .