Louisiana’s attempt to “strengthen managerial authority” could be a national first

Superintendents and principals should have greater latitude over personnel decisions and instructional material, according to lawmakers and activists who support Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education agenda.

Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge) sponsored the “Micromanagement Bill”, which was signed into law as Act 720 in 2010. He believes this policy change was an important step along the path toward greater decentralization and autonomy within local school districts. Looking ahead to the upcoming legislative session, which begins on March 12, Carter anticipates that Jindal will push for new legislation that further constrains school boards and empowers local officials.

The existing law includes language that prohibits school board members from exercising undue influence over superintendents when they make personnel decisions. Moreover, the legislation seeks to insulate superintendents from board politics by requiring a 2/3 vote of school board members to terminate the district leader mid-contract.

Union officials have been critical of the bill but Carter sees cause for encouragement. Instead of school boards constantly “looking over their shoulder,” superintendents and principals now have greater flexibility, Carter explained.

Gov. Jindal has called for additional policy changes that would “get school boards out of the hiring and firing business,” and provide superintendents with the lead role in public hearings used to determine whether or not a teachers should be removed, according to a “fact sheet” from the governor’s office.

Even so, Carter acknowledges that the new arrangement is not “foolproof” in terms weeding out undue bureaucratic interference. For this reason, Gov. Jindal has incorporated several new proposals within his education platform that would establish clear demarcation points between the school boards and local administrators, Carter added.

“The governor would like to strengthen the current legislation to the point where it becomes the superintendent’s responsibility to hire and fire,” he said. “This way there is no ambiguity to the language and no room for open-ended interpretation. We want to make sure the superintendents have the authority to do the job they were hired to do.”

Carter’s bill primarily addresses the authority superintendents have over hiring and firing practices. But, over time, he anticipates that the policy change will translate into greater discretion for local officials who are closest to the day-to-day classroom activity.

Philip Martin, superintendent of Terrebonne Parish School District is keen on the idea of more local control.

“I have never felt any kind of undue pressure from my board,” he said. “But I can see where this may be a problem in other parts of the state. Conceptually, I support the idea of giving more latitude to superintendents. In fact, I would say the experience I have here with my board  is proof that it is a good arrangement.”

Rayne Martin, executive director of Stand for Children (STAND) and former deputy superintendent of innovation for the Louisiana Department of Education, supports the “micromanagement bill” and credits Carter for initiating a key policy change that could have a transformative influence on the classroom experience.

“The closer you bring the decision making back to children, the better our education system will be,” she said. “The superintendents, principals and the teachers are the people who have the day to day experiences in their school districts. They are better positioned to address the unique needs of their own classrooms and schools.  For this reason, I see the micromanagement bill as a good start, the idea behind it, of greater autonomy and latitude in terms of decision making for those who are best positioned to meet the needs of students is very legitimate and very appropriate.”

At the same time, Martin made it clear that school boards will continue to play a vital role within Louisiana’s educational system. The reforms that have already been adopted, and the additional proposals Gov. Jindal has put into circulation, will help to better define areas of responsibility, she said.

“While I think it’s important to empower superintendents and principals with greater decision-making authority, we should be clear that the school boards will continue to occupy a very important position,” she said. “Their responsibility to hire an effective superintendent and hold them accountable for student achievement is incredibly important. This is really about having each role better defined so there is a clear sense of mission and purpose and everyone is working collective to better educate our kids.”

If Jindal is successful in his efforts to reshapes school board authority, the policy changes in Louisiana could have national ramifications, Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said.

“No one else has really figured out how to tackle this problem,” Hess observed. “As far as I know, this is the first proposal of this kind. The idea is not to replace school boards, but to reduce the scope of their influence and strengthen managerial authority.”

He added:

“The whole point of a school board is to provide direction and oversight. But we see too often is a kind of intrusive micromanaging that does not fit anyone’s idea of good government and good management. It means the boards are not doing their job well, and they are not allowing the superintendents and principals to do their jobs well either.”

Les Landon, director of public relations for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, disagrees. The “micromanagement” bill and other similar proposals are essentially “solutions in search of a problem,” he said.

Principals, for example, already have sufficient input into “hiring and firing practices,” Landon argued.

“If you ask a teacher who hired them, they will tell you it was the principal,” he said. “So there is already hiring and firing with the approval of the school board, I call this oversight, not micromanagement. It would be wrong to take the school boards of out this process.”

But not every administrator is on board with the union position.

Earlier this month, the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents (LASS) withdrew from the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education, which includes the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) and the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE).

Michael Faulk, who serves as president of the state superintendent’s organization, said he found it necessary to separate from the coalition because his membership prefers to examine Jindal’s proposal on a “case-by-case” basis. He is “open-minded” about reforms that impact school boards. A strong partnership between board members and superintendents is in the best interests of teachers and students, he said.

The Pelican Institute invited the Louisiana School Boards Association to comment on the “Micromanagement” legislation already in place and the potential policy changes Jindal has outlined, but did not receive a response.

Kevin Mooney is the Capitol Bureau Reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at kmooney@pelicanpolicy.org and followed on Twitter.