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This summer, State Superintendent of Education John White unveiled a comprehensive, statewide education reform initiative called “Louisiana Believes.” Student scholarships (vouchers) and changes to teacher tenure, passed by the state legislature and signed into law by the governor, have been hotly debated—via protests and lawsuits. But the initiatives reach far beyond those topics.
Students whose families don’t exceed 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Level ($57,625 for a family of four) and who are entering kindergarten or who currently attend a C, D, or F-rated public school now have the option to enroll tuition-free in a state-approved private or parochial school or an A or B-rated public school that is outside their district or attendance zone. More than 10,000 students applied for the scholarship program—vouchers—for this school year; 5,600 received scholarships based upon student preference or lottery when demand exceeded the number of seats available at a participating school.
When Act 2—the legislation allowing the vouchers—passed, there was a lot of criticism about an apparent lack of accountability with participating private and parochial schools. In late July, the Department of Education released The Criteria for School Participation in the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program, which among other criteria information, details how a school can be temporarily suspended or even immediately and permanently expelled from the program.
The Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and dozens of school boards joined together to file a suit in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge contesting the constitutionality of the voucher law and the formula for distributing state money to schools. The LAE also petitioned the First Circuit Court of Appeals for an injunction seeking to halt the voucher program; the injunction was denied.
Teacher employment and tenure
Now principals and superintendents, and not local school boards, will handle most decisions about teacher employment and pay. Regarding tenure: previously it required three years of employment; now, educators must receive a “highly effective” rating in five out of six consecutive years to obtain it. Back-to-back “ineffective” ratings will become a cause for teacher termination. Seniority will no longer be a dominant factor in layoff decisions; performance will.
The Louisiana Federation of Teachers filed suit in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge asking the court to strike down tenure and other personnel changes.
The state is helping to facilitate the creation of charters, especially in poorly performing districts. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will develop a common charter school application and charter application timelines for use by all charter authorizers in the state, including school districts. Charter operators with a demonstrated track record of success may now apply for multiple charters through one application.
There is a great emphasis on academics in “Louisiana Believes”—from pre-K through 12th grade. Among the large changes are:
- the creation of standards for birth-to-five for all schools and centers, with these standards then being used to measure student performance upon entering kindergarten;
-every Louisiana student (other than those who are cognitively unable) will take the ACT series starting in 8th grade;
-every school will offer AP courses, and the state will invest in training large numbers of teachers (300 this year) to start AP programs at their schools;
-the state will invite dozens of providers—online, colleges and universities, and teachers themselves—to design college-level courses for high school students;
-students in grades 8-11 will begin taking the ACT series in 2013, to reflect the new rigor in literacy.
For students pursuing jobs immediately upon graduation from high school, the state has invited industry providers, alone or in partnership with technical colleges, to provide sequences of courses that prepare them for careers; the state will prioritize courses that lead to jobs.
“Louisiana Believes” is ambitious and overarching; the above touches upon some of the biggest initiatives, as well as the most controversial. To learn more, visit the Louisiana Department of Education website, www.louisianaschools.net/lde/uploads/19878.pdf.