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Mar 30, 2012 9:13 AM by AP

Senate panel Oks Jindal education bills

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Complex legislation that paves the way to more easily create public charter schools and establishes a statewide private school voucher system - key parts of the governor's education package - was unanimously approved by a state Senate committee on Thursday. The measure also curbs local school boards' power, gives more hiring authority to superintendents and principals and diminishes teacher job security.

The ambitious agenda is embodied in two bills passed by the House last week and debated for six hours in the Senate Education Committee. It is on a fast track to passage despite opposition from teacher unions, numerous local school administrators and others. Critics question everything from whether there is any evidence that it will work, to whether it will unconstitutionally divert voter-approved taxes for local school systems to private schools.

Backers of the measures note the continued poor performance of public schools and say the measure will provide a badly needed shake-up. They also say it will increase education options for parents who want to get their children into better schools as soon as possible.

"We've got to do something today and it's got to be something serious," said Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas.

Among the legislation's best known supporters are the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the nonpartisan Council for a Better Louisiana.

The voucher bill is aimed at low-to-moderate-income families with children in public schools that earn a C, D or F under the state accountability system. Students in D and F school students get priority. It would allow them to send their child to an approved private school with tuition aid from the state.

State money, delivered to local school districts through an education funding formula, would follow a student to a private school instead of going into district coffers. That has upset some districts over the loss of that money. And it has led to debate over its proper use. Some of the state dollars come from local districts, where voters have approved taxes specifically for school district use.

Dan Garrett, attorney for the St. Charles Parish school system, said the issue needs to be addressed. "The voters off St. Charles Parish have agreed to tax themselves so that they can have a good school system. They have a good school system and they fear the unintended consequence of such broad legislation could upset the success that they've had," Garrett said.

Supporters didn't rule out addressing the issue at some point but both bills went through the panel debate with no amendments. Administration backers have resisted any attempt to change the bill.

The voucher-charter bill has to be reviewed Monday by the Senate Finance Committee, then both bills go to the full Senate. If no changes are made, the bill won't need another debate in the House. That would mean the legislation - perhaps the signature achievement of Jindal's young second term - could reach his desk for signature by the end of next week. The session began March 12 and ends June 4.

"We would like to see no amendments on it, because we think when it left here it was in a pretty good posture," House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said during a news conference. "But you know there's always the opportunities to improve the legislation a little bit more. "

Others said the legislation can be adjusted, if necessary in future sessions. "Where it doesn't work, we'll take a look at it and fix it where it doesn't work," said Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville.

Thursday's hearing opened with what is usually referred to as the tenure bill, although it is a wide-ranging bill affecting the power of school boards in hiring and firing of teachers, giving more control in such matters to local superintendents and principals. Teacher tenure, now earned after three years of "satisfactory" ratings, would be tougher to get, requiring five years of top "highly effective" ratings in a six-year period.

Early on, Jindal administration education officials sought to address criticisms leveled at the bill since it was passed in a 16-hour House session last week.

One such criticism has been that basing teacher effectiveness evaluations on student performance is unfair because performance can be affected by poverty, absenteeism, discipline problems and other factors.

"I've got teachers who say to me, 'Hey, if I just get two or three that just don't feel like doing a test and that's going to bring me down,'" Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, and a Jindal ally said while questioning Education Superintendent John White.

White said evaluations will be based on expected improvement with consideration of factors including poverty, absenteeism and students' special needs. "We look at how much improvement that child made all that year," White said.

Still, opponents raised doubts about the evaluation process, called for in law passed in 2010 and now being piloted in 10 school districts. White said a report on the pilot is expected to be completed in about two weeks.

Michael Walker Jones, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, seized on that as he criticized the bill, noting that the bills are on a fast track to win full passage as early as this week. "Shouldn't we make sure we have all the data?" Jones said.

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