Business leaders, choice proponents say education should be prioritized over politics with testing set to begin

Politically active union leaders should refrain from separating teachers from their classroom responsibilities with standardized testing set to begin, business representatives and reform proponents are arguing in response to recent school board actions.

On Monday, the Vermilion Parish School Board and the St. Martin Parish School Board approved a “professional development day” so that teachers would be able to attend a Louisiana Senate Education Committee hearing now scheduled for Thursday. Meanwhile, the East Baton Rouge Parish Public School system has canceled school for Wednesday now that over 900 teachers have said they will be absent.

“Our board felt like it was important for our teachers to have a voice in the legislation that will impact them,” Charlotte Waguespack, assistant superintendent in Vermilion Parish, said. “Nothing specific was mentioned, it was just a general concern about the overall package.”

A memo to teachers in Vermilion Parish explained the decision:

“This day was granted so that those of us who would like to attend the Education Committee meetings in Baton Rouge on Thursday may do so,” the memo said. “You will have the choice to go to Baton Rouge to rally and speak with our representatives about the bills that will be presented this spring in the legislature. If you choose not to go to Baton Rouge, you will need to report to your school for professional development…”

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) and Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), the state’s two teachers unions, have both expressed opposition to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s reform package.

Eric Lewis, the state director of the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunity (BAEO), said that teachers and union officials should be permitted to express themselves, but he does not support the idea of taking time away from classroom instruction.

“I think it’s irresponsible for the educators to do this with standardized testing just around the corner,” he observed. “With technology like cell phones and social media, it seems to me that they can make them themselves heard.”

Phase 1 of the LEAP (Louisiana Educational Assessment Program) for the fourth and eighth grade students and the GEE (Graduation Exit Examination) for 10th and 11th graders begins next week, according to the Louisiana Department of Education.

“The fact that they [the unions] are doing this with the standardized testing starting next week illustrates beyond any reasonable doubt that they are not about the kids,” said Brigitte T. Nieland Vice President, Communications and Director, of Education and Workforce Development for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI).

“They are going to take a whole day off and rail about how there should be no changes to tenure and that teacher evaluations should not be linked to student performance,” she continued. “But here’s the real kicker, they accuse the governor of strong arming and yet here they are calling for a blitzkrieg at the Capitol. If that’s not strong-arming, then what is?”

Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge) is the lead sponsor for the education legislation on the House side. Sen. Conrad Appel (R-Metaire), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, is steering the companion bills in the upper chamber.

Carter’s HB 974 and Appel’s SB 603, which link teacher tenure to performance, make effectiveness the primary criterion for personnel decisions, and grant authority for hiring and placement of personnel to school superintendents, are both scheduled to be heard in committee this week.  Carter’s HB 976 and Appel’s SB 597, which would convert the Orleans Parish scholarship program into a statewide voucher initiative and open new pathways for charter schools, are also up for consideration.

Union leaders do not need to attract a larger number of teachers to have an impact on the committee hearings, Nieland noted.

“There is only so much room available during the committee hearings and it’s possible for a small number of people to be loud, disruptive and intimidating,” she said.

The Vermilion Parish memo contained additional instructions to teachers.

“If you go to Baton Rouge, we are asking that you Wear Red for Ed. However, our superintendent has asked us not to wear clothing that will identify us as Vermilion Parish Teachers (anything with a school or parish name on it),” the memo explained. “We will be representing the teachers of the state as a whole and would like to be seen as any teacher, not just Vermilion Parish teachers. However, when speaking with your legislators, please let them know that you are one of their constituents and where you stand on the issues…You will be required to sign in at your school, or with a representative in Baton Rouge to show that you attended. If you are not planning on being at either location, you should put yourself in the computer as a sick or personal day.”

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