Saturday, May 19, 2012

Efforts to Produce Rational Education Reform

Senator Ben Nevers, a long time supporter of public schools and teacher rights attempted last week to restore sanity to one component of education reform in Louisiana. Unfortunately his efforts were overwhelmed by the big business lobby. Senate Bill 650 by Nevers was supported by the Louisiana Association of Educators and would have substituted multiple measures of student achievement (instead of the scores on one standardized test) for the quantitative portion of the teacher evaluation system. Surprisingly, the State Department of Education put in a green card of support for the legislation, but the effort was not sincere as evidenced by the fact that no one from the Department testified for the bill.

This legislation would have significantly improved the foundation of the Act 54 evaluation. Many educators believe that the Nevers legislation would have produced a more effective and rational evaluation system, but the big business lobbies represented by the The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) and the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL) successfully put pressure on the Senate Education Committee to block the legislation. The Senate Education Committee has demonstrated this year that it is basically owned by big business and Governor Jindal and is not interested in professional educators' opinion.

LAE Executive Director, Michael Walker Jones was quoted as follows: “I don’t see anyone with LABI or CABL with the experience to accurately gauge the work teachers do in the classroom,” Walker-Jones said. “I would never put myself up as someone who understands the complexities of business. Number one, schools are not a business, number two, classrooms are not a business and number three, we are trained professionals in what we do. They can sit down with us anytime they are interested in learning how a classroom works. I will debate anyone from LABI or CABL anytime, anyplace, anywhere in Louisiana.”

Another LAE sponsored bill (HB 879 by Rep. Sam Jones) would have reinstated legitimate due process for dismissal or discipline of permanent teachers. This bill was killed in the House Education Committee by a close vote on May 9. The legislation would have allowed for local school board review of dismissal or discipline of permanent teachers and would have allowed the teacher to request binding arbitration as a final step of any such action. The following Education Committee members voted to defer (kill) the bill: Landry, Carter, Broadwater, Burns, Carmody, Champagne, Hollis, Nancy Landry, Shadoin, and Thompson. Voting against the motion to defer the bill were: Bishop, Edwards, Jefferson, Price, Richard, Patricia Smith, and Alfred Williams.

The major problem with Governor Jindal's revision of the tenure law is that it basically destroys legitimate due process rights of all teachers. The new law provides that the tenure hearing committee be comprised of 3 members with one selected by the superintendent, one by the principal and one selected by the teacher.  It automatically stacks the deck against the teacher. Also, even though the removal of a teacher for alleged ineffectiveness is supposed to take two years, the moment a teacher gets an unsatisfactory evaluation, he/she loses new step increases and is put first in line for layoff. With inadequate state funding and huge unfunded mandates hitting most local school systems, we can fully expect significant layoffs of many teachers both this year and next. I believe that the obvious glitches in the new evaluation system could cause 20+ year experienced teachers who may have had excellent evaluation records for many years to be unfairly listed as first to be laid off in the coming RIFs.

That's why teachers need to be organized as never before. For at least the past ten years many teachers had assumed that their rights would continue to be protected regardless of the various waves of reform. That is no longer true. Most teachers thought that the Governor and most legislators respected them as professionals. That is no longer true. Most teachers really believed that education reform would be rational and based on sound education principles and on education research findings. That is no longer true.

In reality, most of the recent irrational reforms are already beginning to produce negative unintended consequences. For example, the push for parental choice is now being used by parents in affluent neighborhoods as a rationale to split away their neighborhood from traditional parish systems. This could leave the poorer neighborhoods with an inadequate tax base and under-funding. All of this is leading to more segregation of student populations both racially and into the haves and the have-nots. Exactly the opposite of what the Jindal "reforms" were supposed to produce.

I believe the attack on the teaching profession in this legislature, instead of improving and strengthening the teaching force will discourage many promising young teachers from remaining in education. Also, some experienced teachers may decide to retire earlier than they had planned instead of putting up with the worsening student testing craze and the insults of the value-added evaluation system.

I want to point out a few positives however:  Opinion surveys repeadedly show that most parents of public school children still believe in and support their child's teacher. The terrible attacks on the teaching profession this year have not come from the general public but from a well financed and determined elite minority of big business executives and newspaper editors who believe they have all the answers to reforming education. The fact that all recent public school tax renewals in Louisiana passed so overwhelmingly, shows that the average taxpayer does not blame teachers for the problems in our schools today. When newspaper stories critical of public education are written, reader comments supporting teachers outnumber negative comments 10 to 1. Educators need to mobilize their supporters to save our public schools and restore respect for the profession.

Real reform based on what educators know is effective is sorely needed.  But that won't happen until teachers and school administrators become much more involved in the election of their legislators and the Governor. I will keep repeating this! Educators live in large numbers in most legislative districts. If we unify now to counteract these misguided and harmful attacks on public education we can be extremely effective. Please stay tuned to this blog and to your professional/union organizations and participate in the plans to involve educators in political action that can truly improve education and restore the status of professional educators!