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First votes set on voucher, tenure bills, AP, 3/14/12

posted Mar 14, 2012, 11:30 AM by Bill Duncan

DNHPE Comment: Notice the level of teacher involvement.  And Sen. Landrieu.

Posted: Mar 14, 2012 4:11 AM EDTUpdated: Mar 14, 2012 1:32 PM EDT
Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. Bobby Jindal assured members of a House panel that his plan to expand public funding of some students' private school tuition is constitutional, as lawmakers opened hearings Wednesday on his proposals.

The Republican governor - in a rare appearance before a legislative committee - disagreed with Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, who asserted that the voucher program, which would provide state-funded tuition for children in low-performing public schools, violates the state constitution's requirements for funding public school systems. And he said the legislation is critical to the future of the state.

"This is not about the next poll. This is not about the next election. This is about the next generation," said Jindal.

The governor's plan also makes it easier for private groups to run public charter schools while reducing teacher job security protections.

The political nature of the issue was evident before the hearing began, as hundreds of teachers and school employees crowded into the Capitol, many wearing red in a show of solidarity against Jindal's proposals. And it was evident as the hearing opened when Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, moved to require that witnesses be asked whether they were taking sick leave to attend the hearing.

Some school systems in the state announced that schools would be closed Wednesday or Thursday, when a Senate committee takes up companion legislation, because of expected teacher absences. While some teachers made it clear they were taking personal leave days, Landry wondered if some were abusing sick time.

Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, was among committee members who opposed Landry's motion, labeling it as a punitive and unnecessary. Landry's motion was approved 10-8, but it was unclear whether anyone who refused to answer would be denied a chance to testify.

The hearing was expected to last for several hours and it was unclear how soon votes would come.

The major piece of legislation being debated Wednesday morning was the complex measure combining the expansion of the voucher program, already operating on a limited basis in New Orleans, with the charter school expansion.

Jindal's overall plan has a broad array of support. Administration figures and political allies who lined up to testify for it included state Superintendent of Education John White, Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret and members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, whom Jindal campaigned for last fall.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry backed the package, as did the nonpartisan Council for a Better Louisiana and parents of students representing the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Criticism came from two other nonpartisan watchdog groups. The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana and the New Orleans-based Bureau of Governmental Research both said the proposal needs to beef up accountability standards for any private school taking the vouchers.

And U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, who supports many of the governor's proposals, said in an interview Wednesday that the debate is moving too quickly, before lawmakers and citizens have a chance to review the proposals.

Landrieu said, "If this is such a great reform package, it should be able to stand the test of review. This is a democracy. This isn't a dictatorship."

Teacher unions and various school administrators at the local level around the state have been among the plan's most persistent critics. They accuse Jindal of unfairly blaming teachers for education ills and question whether the changes will be effective or will simply strip dollars from public education in favor of private schools.

House Bills 974 and 976 can be found at www.legis.state.la.us
Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte contributed to this story.

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