|As the academic year begins, many questions regarding the state's education reforms remain unanswered.|
In late January, more than 800 educators, education experts, elected officials and business leaders from around the state gathered in the grand ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel for an education summit that would set the stage for one of the most sweeping reforms in Louisiana history.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pumped up the mostly Republican crowd with the story of how he successfully reformed the Sunshine State's educational system in the 1990s, while Gov. Bobby Jindal unveiled his ambitious plan for fixing Louisiana's failed public schools.
The momentum for change was clearly in the air, and in the weeks that followed, the Jindal administration worked with lightning speed and efficiency to pass legislation that promises to upend Louisiana's K-12 school system. New state laws will direct education dollars in the form of tuition vouchers to students—not school districts. Automatic teacher tenure will be replaced by a system that will require educators to demonstrate results before they're guaranteed job security.
“It was very fast and very focused,” says Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana. “I can't recall many other things that have happened quite that way.”
But while enacting such sweeping change was impressive, especially given the opposition from powerful teachers unions, the real heavy lifting has been in implementing the reforms. It's a Herculean task that has been going on all summer and isn't quite complete, even as the new school year begins this week. Many questions posed by parents, educators and administrators remain unanswered. While no one involved in the process wants to criticize or raise concerns, privately they'll admit they're cutting it close as they try to put all the pieces in place.
“It's been a very quick turnaround and very big learning curve,” Erwin says. “But I don't know if it would have been any better to wait another year or two. There would be confusion no matter when you implemented a new system like this.”
One of the fundamental questions: How many students from each district will participate in the Louisiana Student Scholarship Program, as it's called, which awards tuition vouchers or scholarships from participating private schools to qualified students from poor performing schools. Statewide, 7,000 scholarships, or spots in private schools, are available for this academic year. Of those, 5,600 have been awarded so far through a lottery system. Once families actually claim those spots and officially enroll, which is supposed to have happened by Aug. 6, the remaining 1,300 scholarships will be awarded through another lottery process in the next two weeks to some of the students who didn't get placed in the first go-round.
As a practical matter, that means some students won't be starting school until after the first official day, though a spokesman with the Louisiana Department of Education says that shouldn't be much of a problem. What might be a bigger problem is how local school districts are getting their school year under way with an unknown number of students. Officials at EBR Parish Schools, for instance, do not yet know how many pupils will be returning and how many will be opting out for a spot in a private school.
That's because while the state has said some 820 students in the parish have accepted vouchers, not all of those students attend EBR schools. Some go to schools under the state's Recovery School District; others are enrolled in Baker and Zachary schools. “It's not a good thing not to know how many students will be returning,” says Chris Trahan, a spokesman for EBR Schools. He hopes to have enrollment figures out by the end of August.
Perhaps the chief reason it's not a good thing for local school districts to remain in the dark about how many of their students will leave for private schools is the financial strain it will cause. EBR schools get more than $8,700 per pupil from the state, so losing several hundred students would mean losing several million dollars. Though some estimates have put the figure as high as $7 million, Trahan doubts it will be that much because that assumes all 820 students from the parish awarded vouchers are coming from EBR schools and not also from the RSD schools, Baker and Zachary. “Whatever the figure, we will have to do a budget revision in late August or September,” he says.
Private school preparations
From the perspective of the private schools participating in the program, the short time frame has made for a busy summer. But the head of the Diocese of Baton Rouge Schools says the 19 Catholic schools that will be accepting voucher students are ready. “Our schools never fly by the seat of their pants,” says Melanie Verges, superintendent for the diocese. “They knew how many spots they had open or available, so they have made preparations accordingly.”
Some 411 voucher students will be attending diocesan schools under the program, fewer than one-third of the total number that applied. Though Verges says the schools have had to hold special orientations for the incoming students in the past couple of weeks, the biggest challenge she anticipates is with helping the students get acclimated to the culture of Catholic schools. “That's always a challenge with students who have not previously been enrolled with Catholic schools,” she says. “We have our own way of doing things.”
Another challenge participating schools will face is in making sure they're clear on the rules governing the program. Much was made during the debates over the legislation about whether participating private schools would be held to the same standard as public schools. Supporters of the legislation assured skeptics they would be, but BESE did not come out with its accountability rules until late July.
“We didn't really have any rules available, and some of the schools threw open their doors before they really understood what all was involved,” Erwin says. “So a lot of things have been happening simultaneously. Schools have been applying while waiting for the actual rules governing the program to be approved.”
While most of the attention with respect to the new laws has focused on the voucher program, the teacher tenure reforms are another big change in the education delivery system, and educators and administrators are still getting up to speed on what the new teacher evaluation process will entail. Barry Landry with the LDOE says some 5,500 school administrators “learned how to properly observe and evaluate teachers and support them as the state adopts higher standards.”
The administrators will work closely with teachers throughout the school year, give feedback, and support their professional development, Landry says. Under the new, stricter guidelines, teachers will be formally evaluated every year. Currently, they are formally evaluated every three years, with informal annual evaluations.
So far, most teachers have reporedly been cooperative and open to the changes.
“As with everything, you're going to get some pushback, but overall we feel they have been pretty positive,” Landry says.
Looming large over all the changes in education are the potential effects of lawsuits that have been filed concerning the new law by the teachers unions, the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. Both groups are suing the state, and at any point implementation of the new programs could be halted; the law could even be overturned. But officials with the state are adamant about moving forward, evincing no concern about the litigation. “We're moving forward with everything as normal,” Landry says. “We're going to keep moving forward with our implementation.
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