Louisiana governor’s controversial education law, voucher program dealt setbacks

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by Félix Pérez

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s “top-down” approach to educational change has been dealt two setbacks, one after a judge this week found Jindal’s education law unconstitutional for the second time in two years and another when a state legislative audit concluded that Jindal’s voucher program does not have adequate safeguards to make sure students are placed in private schools that demonstrate student achievement.

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State District Judge Michael Caldwell, of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, in his second ruling on Jindal’s law, arrived at the same conclusion: it violates the state constitution’s provision against too many issues in one piece of legislation.

Calling Jindal’s continued legal appeals and enforcement of the law acts of “futility,” Deborah Meaux, a classroom teacher with 38 years of experience and president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said, “We want to move away from unproven policies that violate the constitution and educator rights.  Working conditions are students’ learning conditions. It’s imperative that we agree on the scope of working conditions, salary, and benefits, so that we can focus on the importance of improving student learning.”

Deborah Meaux
Deborah Meaux

Jindal’s law, known as Act 1, encompasses teacher evaluation and pay for performance, teacher tenure, hiring, termination and salaries, school control, superintendent and school board duties, layoffs and contracts.

To date, Jindal has spent more than $700,000 of taxpayer dollars in legal costs to defend his law.

Meaux said educators reject Jindal’s portrayal of teachers as roadblocks to higher standards and accountability. “The truth is that teachers want to be evaluated using multiple measures which are reliable, valid, and proven to effectively assess the craft of teaching,” said Meaux. “Student learning can be an indicator of teacher success, but should not be the singular focus of a teacher’s effectiveness, since the craft is intensely complex and multi-dimensional. . . Effective educational change is a ‘bottom-up’ decision, not a ‘top-down’ mandate.”

Separately, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office, in a report issued last month [PDF file], concluded that there are “no legal requirements in place to ensure nonpublic schools that participate in the program are academically acceptable.” The audit, the first comprehensive and independent review of the program, raised questions about the quality of the options given to students, highlighting, among other things, parents’ lack of access to a private school’s test scores and the state’s inability to track voucher spending.

Said Meaux:

Accountability among voucher schools has always been lacking. Private schools have almost complete autonomy with regard to how they operate, who, what, and how they teach, how/if they measure student achievement, how they manage their finances, and what they are required to disclose to parents and the public. If these schools are going to be funded by Louisiana tax dollars, then taxpayers have a right to know if the schools are actually providing children with a better education.

“What we need to do is focus on adequately funding the institutions where the majority of Louisiana’s students learn, and a majority of Louisiana’s students learn in public school classrooms.”

The report also found that of the 118 private schools participating in the voucher program:

  • Almost one-third (35) charged voucher students more than they charge non-voucher students.
  • Only six offered services to students with special education needs.
  • Ninety-seven percent did not separately account for the voucher funds, making it impossible for auditors to conduct a complete review.

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