Last Modified: Friday, June 08, 2012 12:14 PM
BATON ROUGE (AP) — A Louisiana teachers union asked a state court Thursday to throw out a set of sweeping education changes pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and passed by lawmakers in the just-ended legislative session.
At issue are changes to the state's elementary and secondary school funding formula that will pay for a statewide voucher program, online schools, college tuition scholarships and an expansion of charter schools.
Also targeted are changes made to teacher tenure and salary law, to make it harder for teachers to reach the job protection status and to get rid of statewide pay scales for teachers.
The Louisiana Federation of Teachers filed two lawsuits in Baton Rouge district court. The lawsuits say the changes violate constitutional provisions governing the passage of legislation and governing the school financing formula.
"In the haste to steamroll these bills through the Legislature, the constitution was often treated like little more than a list of inconvenient suggestions," LFT President Steve Monaghan said. "The passage of these laws has elevated legal challenges to acts of civic responsibility."
Teachers repeatedly protested at the Louisiana Capitol in March and April, but the measures were fast-tracked through the Legislature by Jindal allies. Union leaders had promised lawsuits, complaining about the process used to push the measures to law.
Supporters said the education changes will give parents more choices for their children, reward highly-performing teachers and improve education for children in Louisiana, which ranks in the bottom five states for national achievement test performance. Jindal made the revamp his main focus of the legislative session.
Jindal described the court challenge as a bid by special interests to preserve a failing educational system. The Republican governor calls the teacher union part of a "coalition of the status quo."
"Forty-four percent of our public schools are failing, 225,000 students are below grade level and our state is spending a billion dollars a year on failing schools. That's unacceptable. The people of Louisiana demand and deserve better," Jindal said in a statement. He added, "Holding up these reforms in court will only deny parents and students the opportunity to escape failing schools."
Opponents said the laws will siphon dollars from public schools and leave some of the neediest students in schools with fewer dollars to educate them. They complain private and parochial schools won't be held to the same accountability standards as public schools even though they'll get public funding. They accused Jindal of advancing the ideas to boost his conservative credentials nationally.
The LFT lawsuit against the school financing plans says the formula described in the Louisiana Constitution is supposed to pay for public schools — not private school vouchers, online schools, college tuition, home-schooling programs and charter schools outside of the local school system.
Monaghan also said the final spending plans were passed improperly with 51 votes of the House, under a ruling by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, a Jindal ally, that allowed passage with fewer than the House majority of 53 votes.
The lawsuit against the tenure revamp says the bill violated the constitution by containing multiple objects, rather than items in one section of the law. The measure changed laws governing teacher tenure, teacher salary and seniority, school board authority and duties of school principals.
Jean Johnson, president of the Calcasieu Federation of Teachers, was in Baton Rouge when the lawsuits were filed.
“We’ve said all along what they were doing is unconstitutional,” Johnson said. “We don’t feel like this is the right move forward.”
Mark Hayes, president of the Calcasieu Association of Educators, said he hopes they can work with the LFT on the legal battle.
“I do agree with them when they said the bills were steamrolled through the Legislature,” he said. “The (state) Constitution was pushed aside to get all those bills passed.”
Both Johnson and Hayes said they were concerned with taking money from the public education system and funneling it into the private system.
“In Calcasieu Parish, we have a good school system,” Johnson said. “Taking money from our public education system is hurting our students.”
Hayes said some of the private schools that have applied for vouchers “don’t have campuses to house students.”
“This is all supposed to start in the fall semester,” he said. “Where’s the accountability for these private schools?”
Hayes said the Louisiana Association of Educators board of directors will meet this weekend in Baton Rouge to review the education reform package.
The lawsuit against the education spending changes, including the voucher funding, was also filed on behalf of Jillian Alexander, a parent of two public school students in Baton Rouge, and Billie Smith, a Baton Rouge teacher.
Also named as plaintiffs in the tenure lawsuit are Nellie Meariman and Kevin Dehart, teachers in Jefferson Parish.
The union wants a preliminary injunction to stop the changes from taking effect and asks for the laws to be declared unconstitutional.
Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White said the lawsuits could prevent parents from choosing educational plans for their children.
"It's time to return our focus to teaching and classrooms, but the LFT keeps dragging us back to politics and courtrooms," White said in a statement.
Monaghan said Jindal's charge that anyone who opposes his agenda is part of the "status quo" is unproductive. Monaghan predicted other groups would file more lawsuits against the education revamp.Online: House Bills 974 and 976 can be found at www.legis.la.gov