Two weeks into the legislative session and, so far, the legislature has yet to tackle the most controversial bills of the session. Committee meetings have focused on more mundane bills but an obvious elephant-in-the-room as tinged discussions. Legislators are finally waking up to the reality that our schools are in freefall. They are finally, beginning to see the teacher shortage for the crisis that it is. Next week several of the most crucial bills will be heard in committee and on the House floor. Find out what happened this week and what we can expect next week:
On Thursday, the House Education Committee heard a presentation from Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, Commissioner of Higher Education, and Representative Buddy Mincey on the Teacher Recruitment, Recovery and Retention Task Force, which was created by resolution in the 2021 Legislative Session. In the presentation, Dr. Hunter-Reed went over statistics about the staggering teacher shortage, the amount of non-certified teachers in classrooms, as well as the plummeting enrollment in teacher education programs. This sparked a discussion that has been brought up a lot in these beginning weeks of the session: how to solve the teacher shortage.
The Louisiana Federation of Teachers and our members – who are in the classroom every day, serving students – have long warned about this moment. Former Governor Bobby Jindal and State Superintendent John White passed a host of damaging education reforms a decade ago, and that has directly led to the decrease teacher workforce. Those reforms made teachers feel under attack by taking away their due process, stripping their funding, and creating arbitrary evaluations that actively detract from their ability to be effective and creative teachers. Louisiana has systematically eroded the joy of teaching.
We hear a lot about the need to “think outside the box” and come up with “creative solutions” to the critical teacher shortage, and that is important. But let’s also challenge legislators to look inside the box; to look at the policies and procedures that impact teachers. As a state, we need to take a hard look at ourselves, at what we are currently doing that’s driving away our teachers. How can we change our current policies and practices to encourage teachers to stay? How can we reinstall joy and passion into the teaching profession?
As a teacher, you have the experience to inform the needed change.
What is it about your experience as an educator that most makes you think about leaving? What makes it difficult for you to encourage your students to enter this profession? Tell your legislators what they can do to fix the teacher shortage, in your own words.
In addition to the discussion on teacher retention, recovery and recruitment, the House Education Committee considered a number of bills. All of these passed without objection, including two troubling pieces of legislation:
House Bill 156 by Rep. Frieberg also passed out of the House Education Committee without objection on Thursday. After a 2019 FBI audit that revealed the LDOE has been out of compliance for the last 30 years, the LDOE requested the bill to duplicate background checks of newly and re-certified teachers. The LDOE has chosen to pass the cost of these additional background checks onto the teachers. Teachers have always had to comply with criminal background checks to earn and maintain their teaching certification, but it is wrong for the LDOE to make teachers pay for the department's error, when teachers are already paid so little.
House Bill 98 by Rep. Magee also passed out of the House Education Committee without objection on Thursday. The proposed law prohibits an assignment of a performance score to a school unless at least 25% percent of the students in tested grades are scholarship recipients.
The Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program allows students attending a public school to attend participating private and parochial schools through state-funded scholarships. The current accountability system for these voucher schools is provided by administrative rule and adopted by BESE. In these rules, voucher schools are assigned a "scholarship cohort index" which is similar to a school performance score and is based on the performance of scholarship recipients on state assessments. Regardless of the size of the school, any voucher school will receive this score if they meet certain thresholds in terms of a minimum number of students in the scholarship cohort in tested grades. Essentially, they'll get the score unless there are so few students in the voucher program that the school score could reveal an individual student score.
Why are we changing the law to give the legislature control over the program? Currently, BESE promulgates the rules for the program and allows for oversight. Putting in the legislature's control would remove that oversight and the checks and balances originally put in place. Rep. Magee Elected in 2015, so he was not in legislature in 2008 or 2012 when this accountability compromise was reached.
In his testimony on the bill, Rep. Magee said that this legislation was in response to the aftermath and school closings due to Hurricane Ida. Still, the legislation applies statewide and has no sunset date. Magee stated that he didn't know if there were problems with the accountability system used to evaluate schools and teachers. Instead of helping more students get a quality education, HB 98 would make it easier to cover up failing voucher schools by ensuring that fewer schools get a performance score. This would make it harder for parents to understand if the voucher school they are considering is actually better than the public school their child currently attends.
Teacher Approval for SLTs - HB 363 (Bryant)
House Bill 363 will be heard by the House Education Committee on Wednesday. If approved, this legislation would force schools to follow current guidelines and actually use mutually agreed upon SLTs instead of one-size-fits-all targets that do not reflect the individual needs of students. This is an important step towards fixing our broken accountability system.
HB 33 (Devillier), HB 194 (Butler), HB 227 (Wright), HB 824 (Schlegel) & HB 838 (Garofalo)
On Wednesday, March 30th the House Committee on Education will hear a litany of bills aimed at increasing the state’s school voucher program. These new funding streams, are known as “Education Savings Accounts” (ESAs). Given the easy passage of HB 98 this week, and the wide scope of some of these voucher proposals, this legislation could have a sweeping impact on public education and a damaging effect on student learning.
Louisiana’s existing school voucher program has failed students. According to a joint investigation by WVUE-TV, NOLA.com, WWNO, Fox 8 and Reveal, two-thirds of all students in the voucher system attended schools where they performed at a “D” or “F” level and not a single school in the voucher program received an A or B.
Ultimately, these bills aims to take public money, usually an amount equivalent to the per-pupil amount funded in the state MFP, and direct it to alternative “education” programs. The only difference between a traditional voucher and an ESA is that instead of the money going directly from the state to the alternative school, ESA money would go to the family and then to the alternative school or program, with even more wiggle room given to the family. Louisiana's Education Excellence Program shortchanges many students by funding their experience at a school that scores lower than the public school they left. The ESA programs could compound this by creating financial fraud and abuse opportunities that traditional voucher programs did not.
On Monday, March 28th the Senate Committee on Retirement will consider Senate Bill 6 by Senator Price. This legislation will give all TRSL retirees a 2% cost of living adjustment to their monthly benefit.
Due Process for Bus Drivers - HB 349 (Bryant)
This legislation will also be heard in the House Education Committee on Wednesday. It would expand due process rights for school bus drivers, giving them the chance to appeal when they are facing disciplinary action in certain circumstances.