State Legislatures Tackle Education Reform

March 20, 2012 Updated: March 20, 2012

Vouchers and parent petitions are part of education reform proposals being forwarded by state legislatures, with a spotlight recently on bills supporting an initiative by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal up for debate in the state House and Senate.

“There is nothing more important to our state’s future than education reform,” Jindal said in a press release announcing the landmark education reform bills.

Key elements of governor’s reform package include: school vouchers enabling parents to pull children from under-performing schools; parent petitions for converting such schools to charter schools; and tightening rules for teacher tenure, including superintendent and teacher effectiveness measures.

Sen. Conrad Appel, chairman of the Education Committee and author of the Senate proposal, said in a telephone interview, “Generations have suffered in Louisiana because of poor outcomes in its public education system.”

According to Appel, for more than 20 years there has been a series of efforts to reform education to make it better and more effective, and break the cycle of poverty. But efforts were “either halfhearted, not enough, or undone by the forces of what the governor likes to call ‘the status quo,'” said Appel.

Appel describes the status quo as teacher unions and school boards. Appel said legislators have “put together a very large packet of bills or ideas into four bills.”

Similar education reforms are in play in states across the United States but in Louisiana they’re all together in one big and bold legislative package, according to Appel.

Florida introduced a measure to allow parents to petition for charter school conversion (parent petition) called the Parent Empowerment in Education Act. The bill passed the House, but failed in the Senate March 9 in a 20-20-tie vote.

Parent petition—also called parent trigger—developed with the idea that “if a group of parents at a school agree on something, the school would have to listen,” said Linda Serrato, deputy communications director advocates Parent Revolution, formed on the day President Obama took office.

According to Serrato, the school districts were not listening to the parents. “They ended up saying, ‘Thank you, we are so glad parents are involved,’ but would not do anything about it,” said Serrato.

“We started to discover that there are two kinds of powerhouses that govern what happens in education–school district officials and teachers unions,” said Serrato.

If 50 percent or more of the parents organize in their schools and sign a petition, they are able to utilize one of Obama’s Race to the Top initiatives: closing the school, replacing the principle, cutting staff, or converting to a charter school. “That is where it came from,” said Serrato.

Mississippi, Texas, and California have a parent petition law, while other states have considered it. Not everyone likes it.

Rita Solnet, co-founder of Parents Across America—a grass-roots organization for public education—said parents should cooperate and fix the school, working with the school district, principal, and teachers. “The knee jerk reaction is always close the school,” said Solnet, in a telephone interview.

The parent petition has “everyone jump into one camp or the other,” says Solnet, adding that “this is not the environment to learn … and it is very stressful to not know if your school is going to be open,” said Solnet.

“There is only so much money that can be spent on public education in each state. That money is being siphoned from public schools and handed over to private entrepreneurs,” said Solnet.

Charter schools can be run by people with a background outside of education. Philanthropic efforts, corporations, businesses, and individuals play a sizable role in charter school investment.

Private Support

Debbie Veney Robinson, senior communications officer at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said that while public schools have community support “there are other private corporations that are willing to invest in these schools, [and] the more people you have invested to help these children become successful, I think that is a good thing.”

South Carolina is also considering a school choice bill, providing vouchers to fund students attending private school, home school, or a public school outside the assigned district. “Depending on the outcome of several senate races, a school choice bill may become law by June of 2013,” wrote S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms in an email.

Sen. Eric LaFleur, vice chairman of the education committee and the only committee member to vote “no” on Jindal’s education package, said, “The funding mechanism comes from a fund that is dedicated for public education. They’re going to use that same fund to support the learning instruction in the private sector.”

LaFleur said the bills are OK, but he has a problem with the funding, noting also that the rules for evaluating teachers as effective won’t be finalized until after the voting.

“Teachers are obviously apprehensive about going into a system where the rules are unknown. They would like us to have a check on what those rules are before we impose on them new rules for tenure,” said LaFleur.

According to Appel, the bottom line is simple. “We live in a real open and international society. The children of Louisiana are not competing among themselves or even the other states that are competing on a worldwide basis,” said Appel.

In the end, education success, according to Appel, would mean good jobs, strong families, no poverty, increased wealth, and with that no drug use, crimes, or bad health. “It would have to be a long term measure and education is long term,” said Appel.