Reform package met with lawsuits

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 4, 2012

This is the second in a multi-part series examining the education reform package that will take effect in the upcoming school year.



LAPLACE – Although Gov. Bobby Jindal’s far-reaching plan to reform Louisiana’s public school system passed through the state Legislature with relative ease, certain elements of the package have drawn the ire of various teacher groups and the Louisiana School Boards Association, which have both started legal battles against the new measures.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers in June filed a pair of lawsuits in Baton Rouge asking to have Acts 1 and 2 of the 2012 legislative session, which pertain to the education reforms, to be set aside on the grounds the acts violate the state constitution. The suits’ initial claim is that the Legislature violated the constitution by bundling what could have been multiple new laws into the two lengthy acts. A provision in the state constitution requires that all bills be confined to one single purpose. Each act is more than 40 pages long. The Louisiana Association of Educators has also filed lawsuits looking to block inaction of the new laws.

Act 1 focuses on tenure laws, hiring and firing policies and employee compensation, while also redefining the roles of local school boards and superintendants.

Act 2 expands the state’s voucher program, which pays tuition to private and religious schools, and takes the funding for vouchers from public education’s Minimum Foundation Program. It also includes changes to the way charter schools are created.

The Louisiana School Boards Association and more than 30 local school boards, including some in the River Parishes, have joined the lawsuit against Act 2, which is commonly referred to as the “voucher law.” School board leaders believe the act inappropriately shifts more than $3 million in MFP funding previously reserved for public elementary and secondary schools to private and religious schools, charter schools, home schools and business and industry course providers.

“By cramming so many objectives into just two bills, public comment and debate were stifled,” said teacher federation President Steve Monaghan.

“Legislators were given little information about the bills and appeared intimidated into passing them without adequate debate and oversight,” Monaghan added.

The School Boards Association suit against Act 2, which was filed June 29, is being prepared by Louisiana School Boards Association attorney Robert Hammonds of Hammonds and Sills Law Firm. Hammonds said the suit will be a joint effort of the School Board Association and the individual boards themselves.

In agreeing to join the lawsuit, some local school board members said Act 2 is a violation of the separation of church and state because is sends money for public schools to other institutions that use faith-based practices.

Specific challenges to Act 1 from the Louisiana Federation of Teachers include the following:

• It changes the contractual relationship between local school boards and  superintendents.

• It strips the authority to hire and fire teachers from school boards and gives it to superintendents.

• It gives superintendents sole authority to determine reduction in force policies.

• It creates a new section of law regarding how teacher salaries will be determined.

• It changes due process rights that teachers have under law.

The LFT’s challenges to Act 2 include the following:

• It unconstitutionally diverts MFP funds from public schools to private and religious institutions

• It diverts funds approved by local voters for specific purposes to private, religious and charter schools that were not included in the ballot language.

“For those who may once more attempt to hide their disrespect for the rule of law and the people’s constitution behind a façade of faceless children, we would assert that it is out of love and respect for the fate of every child that we must challenge these unconstitutional acts,” Monaghan said in a statement.

Both Jindal, and state School Superintendent John White have issued statements in response to the lawsuits referring to the groups as the “Coalition of the Status Quo.”

White said the LFT is preventing parents from doing what they think is best 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.

Meanwhile, Jindal said holding up the reforms in court will only deny parents and students the opportunity to escape failing schools.

“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,” Jindal said. “That’s unacceptable. The people of Louisiana demand and deserve better.”

A hearing will be held July 10 on the state’s exemptions to the lawsuit. On July 24, the court will decide whether to grant a preliminary injunction to keep Act 2 from going into effect.