Louisiana’s long road to education reform has been littered with repeals, phase-outs, incomplete implementations and the worst kind of politics. It should serve as a cautionary tale of what could go wrong during — and after —  the upcoming legislative session. 


Rep. John Bel Edwards
Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite

Republicans or Democrats. Liberals or conservatives. Union or non. It doesn’t matter. Whenever Louisiana’s ruling class has decided to move forward with major education reforms over the past four decades or so, it has triggered a political ritual that’s akin to three steps forward and two steps back. 

It’s happening right now. For example, Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, will be pushing House Bill 100 during the upcoming regular session to delay the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system. Put another way, Edwards wants to put a one-year hold on Act 54 of the 2010 regular session. 

Thing is, Edwards, a member of the House Education Committee and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, voted in favor of Act 54 two years ago. Why the sudden change of heart? “I’m not saying it should be repealed. That would be premature,” Edwards said. “But it’s also premature to say let’s implement this now.”

The new evaluation system is supposed to connect teacher evaluations with student achievement. Plus, Gov. Bobby Jindal has proposed several education reforms for the approaching regular session that would link issues like teacher pay and tenure to this evaluation process as it comes online.

Edwards said he voted in favor of Act 54 originally because he was comforted by an amendment that allows the House and Senate education committees the opportunity to approve the finished evaluation system before it’s implemented. “But I don’t think either of the chairmen are going to put it on an agenda,” he added.

As for likely outcomes, Edwards recently told The Advocate, “I doubt that I can pass the bill, to be honest with you.” Regardless, it remains in the hopper. It’s locked and loaded. In the other chamber, Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, has a similar proposal in Senate Bill 131.

Like Edwards, LaFleur, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, supported Act 54 two years ago. And like Edwards‘ bill, LeFleur’s legislation is facing tough odds. What these mechanisms have in common is that they help uncover alliances and provide a snapshot of how politics work on the education front.

Democrats aren’t the only politicians with close connections to the public school system. For a list of the ties that bind, click HERE

Joshua Stockley, political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe

The politics behind the politics aren’t that difficult to decipher. The teacher unions detest pretty much all of the ideas being pushed by the administration. The Louisiana Democratic Party, in turn, needs the unions to help maintain their local base of support. So you can certainly expect the Dems to kick and claw and scream. In no way are they unlikely allies; Democrats and unions are traditional partners, if anything.

Inversely, business and industry almost always finds itself under the tent of the state GOP, which explains their blossoming partnership in regard to Jindal’s proposed education reforms.

This relationship, however, isn’t as solid as the partnership between unions and Democrats. While Jindal is currently keeping the peace, Big Business will walk away from the table if not pleased. Depending on the issue, they might even push their own agenda as a result. Just ask every Louisiana governor from the past four decades or so.

Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and former president of the Louisiana Political Science Association, framed it as a “classic fight,” meaning Dems and unions versus the GOP and business.

But he added it comes with a familiar history in terms of education reform — it’s wins followed by losses followed by wins and so on; as the years roll by, repeals are adopted by different Legislatures, programs fall by the wayside, ground is given for expediency and parochial politics infect everything.

Stockley said the pattern will continue unless there are bold, yet reasonable changes. “If this history, which we all know, is any indication, opposing views will continue to conflict and we won’t see anything reconciled,” Stockley said. “That’s unfortunate. All sides have something to offer if they could just yield or compromise a bit.”

The Senate education chairman has some strong words for these classic political battles: “Louisiana has failed generations of its young citizens by allowing a failed system of education to continue…” To read all of Sen. Conrad Appel’s call for change, click HERE

Senator Conrad Appel, R-Metairie

Senate Education Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said there will be a united front among the designers of Jindal’s plan when the first gavel comes crashing down March 12 to open the regular session.

He said the governor’s coalition is well aware that previous efforts to reform education have been bogged down by small-to-large differences and shifting stances. “A lot of what has been done before was done piecemeal,” Appel said. “That’s the beauty of this new package. It’s broad and has a long range. But it needs pass as a whole, or as close to whole as possible.”

John White, Louisiana Superintendent of Education

Sources close to the ongoing negotiations say that state Superintendent of Education John White hasn’t hesitated to take his own stances, even when they might buck what the larger coalition wants. On the other hand, White has also shown a willingness to compromise, but usually only after the proverbial dust settles.

For example, White originally wanted ACT results to account for a larger share — as much as 50 percent — of Jindal’s proposed school performance scores. Some of Jindal’s top backers opposed the decision, but White, after hearing similar complaints from school administrators, backed down and cut the figure in half.

In a recent visit to schools in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, White told reporters that ACT scores represent the best measure of how students are performing — and if they’re ready for the next step in life. “We think it’s more fair and more accurate if everyone’s taking a standardized test,” he said. “And the ACT is easily the most widely used. It’s sort of the benchmark.”

White, who took over as superintendent in January, caused a bit more friction when he moved forward with a waiver request for flexibility in regard to the federal No Child Left Behind law. He did so without consent or feedback from many of the stakeholders who helped craft the state’s accountability system, as identified in the request. In part, that’s why many of the groups and individuals involved with the ongoing negotiations never endorsed or opposed the waiver.

While it made things momentarily uncomfortable inside the inner circle, White’s rookie status and his overall performance have helped keep Jindal’s backers from publicly complaining. ”It’s just reflective of how long he has been on the job,” said one stakeholder. “John White is doing a good job. He wants what is best for the students.” 

The average ACT composite score for Louisiana public and nonpublic students increased only slightly, from 20.1 in 2010 to 20.2 in 2011. To learn more about how the Bayou State stands in terms of the ACT, click HERE

Governor Bobby Jindal

As it stands now, Jindal’s education reform plan has several moving pieces that will require approval by the Legislature in the upcoming session.

— Choice: Parents with children in poor performing public schools could score tax dollars to send them to private schools. Charter operators that perform well would also get the chance to open up new schools.

— Revamping tenure: If a teacher doesn’t earn positive scores under the new evaluation system, they could lose it. Additionally, seniority would no longer be a factor in personnel decisions and annual pay raises based on years of service would be a thing of the past. 

— Power restructuring: While school boards might lose some sway under Jindal’s plan, local superintendents would be afforded greater power when it comes to personnel decisions.

— Early childhood development: Some preschool programs could become eligible for new state funding, but they would have to face the same accountability requirements as everyone else.

But passing the needed legislation is only half the battle. A review of education reform laws dating back to 1977 reveals a number of laws that were ignored or never funded; watered down by oversight agents like school boards and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education; and, in several cases, challenged in the courts by Louisiana’s teacher unions.

Back in 1987, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry published its own retelling of such cases in “Ten Years of Education Reform in Louisiana: A Long Journey to Nowhere.” It only covered the education politics that took place between 1977 and 1987, but it was shocking enough. Still is today.

— 1977: Competency tests for reading, math and writing are established by the Legislature for grades four, eight and 11. Two years later, lawmakers phase them out.

— 1979: Competency tests for all grades for reading, writing and mathematics are ushered in by the Legislature. By 1985, only kindergarten through fifth grade are being tested and the cut off scores are clearly set too low — meaning the goal of making sure kids were ready for the next grade was never accomplished. Soon after, the Legislature redrafted the law to include only fewer grades for testing. 

— 1980: A professional improvement program for teachers is passed into law. A lawsuit brought by one of Louisiana’s teacher unions results in the course requirements being watered down. In 1984, the program is phased out.

— 1981: A professional practices commission is created for teachers to establish a mandatory code of ethics. The following year, a teacher union sues and the law is ruled unconstitutional.

— 1984: Pilot projects for early childhood development are created. By the following year, $2.4 million was up for grabs for every parish and city system in the state. Still, some local school systems didn’t even apply for funding.

— 1984: Minimum amount of instruction time in classrooms is increased. The following year, the law is repealed.

— 1985: A system of “renewal credits” linked to continuing education and training was updated for school administrators. BESE delays implementation of the program and cuts its legislative budget by two-thirds.

— 1985: Readiness tests for kindergarteners and first graders are created. But funding never materializes.

— 1986: A pilot program to help mentor new teachers is passed. Over time, BESE refuses to approve related expenditures.

— 1986: A commission is created to investigate public funding for elementary and secondary education. But the commission never meets. 

The Louisiana Association of Educators is pushing its own reform plan in the upcoming session. To learn more about the LAE plan, click HERE.

By 1988, lawmakers, the business community and other education boosters were clearly fed up with all of the back and forth. These groups also found themselves with a new governor, Democrat Buddy Roemer, who later switched to the GOP toward the end of his first and only term. Roemer is now running for president and has no party affiliation.

Roemer was elected as a reform candidate and kicked off his term with an interesting strategy. He gave teachers a massive pay raise. Looking back, it may have been nothing more than a political carrot.

Because Roemer, not long after, proposed a sweeping accountability program that directly targeted the teacher unions, among others. It somewhat mirrors what the Jindal administration is trying to accomplish today.

In “Great Expectations but Politics as Usual: The Rise and Fall of a State-Level Evaluation Initiative,” Bob L. Johnson recounts how Roemer’s pet policy project initially beat all the odds — before going down in flames. To be certain, there are comparisons to be drawn between then and now.

For example, Johnson wrote that Roemer’s failure stemmed partly from “disagreements among stakeholders regarding the purposes and substance of the evaluation program; and from competing implementation theories, disagreements and confusion among stakeholders as to how the program should be implemented.”

Based on interviews with sources cited earlier in this story, cracks like this have already appeared in Jindal’s planning.  As for how big those cracks might be, this year’s session will tell. But those involved with the ongoing negotiations contend there have been only minor disagreements.

The 1999 research paper also cited three major players that had “key roles in defining the debate, expanding the conflict, and eventually halting” Roemer’s Louisiana Teacher Evaluation Program, or LATEP. Those groups were the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry; the Louisiana Federation of Teachers; and the Louisiana Association of Educators.

For whatever it’s worth, these three lobbies remain at the heart of today’s education debate, too.

Finally, the downfall of Roemer’s plan should strike a familiar tone, especially since the unions are already talking about challenging Jindal’s plan in the courts. Additionally, by the time Roemer took office, the Legislature already had a track record of passing education reforms, only to repeal them later, as evidenced by LABI’s “A Long Journey to Nowhere.”

Here’s how Johnson summed it up: “The teacher unions led a series of unsuccessful lawsuits designed to stop (Roemer’s) evaluation process. The first round of evaluations proceeded as scheduled in the fall of 1990. Setbacks to the unions, however, were only temporary. Provoked by what was perceived to be an unreasonable and invalid system, an antagonistic governor, an intransigent system designer, and a series of blunders by BESE, the teacher unions mobilized a remarkable grassroots opposition effort. Feeling the pressure of this opposition, the Legislature voted overwhelmingly to suspend the program in June 1991.”

The roles that special interest groups, namely the teacher unions, played during the late 1980s “underscores the potential pitfalls associated with attempts to implement an excessively prescribed evaluation program on such a large scale,” Johnston added.

For his part, Jindal still has those special interests to contend with. Plus a few others.

Among the newer special interest groups in the education debate is the Louisiana Budget Project, which has been under fire by conservative critics lately. For a better understanding of LBP’s beef with the governor, click HERE

When former Gov. Edwin Edwards, Louisiana’s Democrat kingmaker, took office in 1992, a weakened version of Roemer’s plan was adopted. The meatiest part involved certain mentoring opportunities for “ineffective” teachers. Those wanting real reform weren’t impressed.

It wasn’t until Republican Mike Foster became governor the following term that education became a priority again on the fourth floor of the Capitol building. But Foster wasn’t as disciplined as Roemer was or Jindal is today. He couldn’t stay on message.

While some of Foster’s education ideas swung for the fences, others were pure curiosities. One such law required students to address teachers and administrators as “ma’am” or “sir,” or they could use other appropriate titles like Mr., Miss, Ms. or Mrs. It was supposed to apply to kindergarten through fifth grade at first, and then be phased into the higher grades in subsequent years. These days, it’s not being enforced.

Nonetheless, it was Foster’s administration that ushered in the accountability system that is now in effect — the same one that serves as the foundation for the improvements Jindal is pushing. Foster’s accountability system links grade promotion to standardized tests. It also uses other information to identify failing schools and a number of mechanisms to better them. The state uses this system to give schools and districts grades ranging from “A” to “F,” just like students receive.

Again, there are parallels between then and now. Foster had to navigate the federal government and its No Child Left Behind Act to get his accountability program approved. Primarily, Foster wanted to some flexibility in regard to the federal law.

In a 2002 press release, Foster said. “Let me be clear: Louisiana’s Accountability Program meets the fundamental goals and even exceeds many of the requirements of No Child Left Behind… As such, Louisiana is seeking no waivers, but rather flexibility from the federal government so that we can keep our successful program in place.”

The feds did eventually yield and Foster got his accountability program. In terms of accountability alone, it pushed Louisiana toward the top of a few national rankings and created some of the most detailed reporting requirements in the country. But despite all of the hype, Louisiana’s scores for student readiness and teacher quality remained near the bottom.

Today, state Superintendent John White is still jumping through the same hoops. Last month, the Louisiana Department of Education unveiled an updated proposal to the federal government that would “tie school accountability to college and career readiness standards and relieve principals and superintendents of bureaucratic restrictions.”

The end game being sought? Flexibility from federal No Child Left Behind regulations. Just like Foster needed.

White said this most recent waiver request answers concerns and ideas expressed by citizens, community organizations and education groups. “This waiver supports our aim to ready our students for 21st century college and workforce demands by aligning the state’s accountability system with the new common core state standards, focusing teachers on the new standards even before full implementation, and allowing principals, not bureaucrats, to determine how money is spent,” White said in a press release. 

Once again, the state is having to deal with the federal government in order to regulate its own schools. But Foster got around the feds and Jindal’s administration is on solid footing to possibly do the same. 

Louisiana isn’t the only state seeking shelter from No Child Left Behind. According to the Associated Press, 25 other states and the District of Columbia submitted an application for this latest round. They include Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. For more, click HERE.

Jindal seems to understand that there’s something to be learned from the past four decades or so of what has been packaged as education reforms. “Even though we have made progress, 44 percent of our schools are still receiving ‘Ds’ and ‘Fs.’ On national metrics, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, we are in the bottom five states in fourth and eighth grade math and reading,” Jindal said.

“I could go on and on about rankings, but it’s clear that we need to move faster and we need to do it now,” the governor added.

Still, there are some things history cannot teach. It must be experienced. In that vein, some of the newer lawmakers now serving have no idea what’s coming.

Louisiana has nearly 50,000 public school teachers and they, along with their friends and family, will lobby lawmakers hard. One lawmaker recently noted that being lobbied by an elementary school teacher is one thing. Being lobbied by your own elementary school teacher is another.

Then there are those who will bring up needs not addressed in Jindal’s plan. Rep. Dee Richard of Thibodaux, who has no party affiliation, is already among them. He said he noticed that school discipline was missing.

So he filed House Bill 312 to “permit” — rather than require, as stated in existing law — local systems to place suspended or expelled students in alternative education programs. “The governor has his package and I think it’s a great start. But we need to take a look at discipline, too,” Richard said. “That is the biggest problem we face in public schools.

Brigitte Nieland, Vice President, Communications; Director, Education and Workforce Development Council

Brigitte T. Nieland, LABI’s vice president of communications and director of the education development council, said in an earlier interview that many of the association’s priorities had been included in Jindal’s agenda.

But not all. “Among the few things not included by the governor that we hope to eliminate is the prohibition on privatizing transportation and food services,” said Nieland, adding that lawmakers would probably be lined up to help with those efforts.

In LABI’s case, they’re still aligned with Jindal. In fact, When LABI conducted its annual meeting in January, Jindal was there. In his closing statements to the association, Jindal again sounded like he had already been schooled on the history of education politics. He predicted an ugly battle that wouldn’t end just because the session is adjourned.

Jindal sounded like he knew what was coming. “Throughout this process, there are going to be a lot of accusations made and a lot of name-calling, but through it all remember why we are in this fight. It’s to give our kids a world class education,” Jindal said. “We all need to check our party affiliations, ideologies, and political agendas at the door when it comes to improving our schools.”

The true test, however, will be whether Jindal’s administration is able to follow these instructions as well. That, and whether his ideas will stand the test of time — and survive future incarnations of state government.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and members of the Legislature aren’t the only politicos with something at stake this spring. According to The Times-Picayune, “(U.S. Sen. Mary) Landrieu finds herself walking a tightrope as Jindal and his allies barrel toward a showdown at the state Legislature this spring with the state’s teacher unions and local school boards.” For more, click HERE

Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him directly by visiting www.jeremyalford.com or follow his work at www.thepoliticaldesk.com and @alfordwrites.