March 23, 2012 04:50
After approving the controversial voucher bill and continuing debate all day Thursday on more education reforms, the Louisiana House adjourned before midnight and immediately reconvened to approve a measure that will tie teachers' tenure to student performance. The House of Representatives wants to increase the amount of taxpayer money that's available for parents to enroll their children in private and parochial schools.

Under Gov. Bobby Jindal's voucher proposal, only low-income children in failing schools would be eligible for the state program. House Bill 976 would also allow more charter schools to be established and parents to vote on what systems should be moved into the Recovery School District.

After nearly 13 hours of debate, the House endorsed the bill late Thursday by a vote of 62-43.

The legislation, which is the centerpiece to Jindal's education-reform package, came to the floor following last week's meeting of the House Education Committee. That historic meeting spanned 16 hours and drew testimony requests from more than 2,000 people.

While the crowds were considerably smaller Thursday, the length of the floor debate alone gave it just as much urgency amongst lawmakers.

"Gang, it's time to make a difference," said House Education Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, the sponsor of the voucher legislation.

Democrats spent considerable time trying to block the bill with lengthy amendments and arguments.

Many raised questions about who would benefit the most from the new vouchers and schools.

Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, warned lawmakers that "pop-up charters" would proliferate statewide if the bill is signed into law and it would do nothing to stop groups as diverse as "Scientologists" and "Muslims" from opening up shop.

"Why in the world would you want to trust a bureaucracy to draw up the rules for this when there's already a standard for the public-school system?" Jones asked the House.

The legislation would apply to students in schools that have been graded by the state with a "C," "D" or "F."

Although an amendment was approved to force the program to give priority to students in "D" and "F" schools, some opponents wanted "C" schools taken out.

"We need to concentrate on those who really need it, the ‘D' and ‘F' students," Harrison said.

A former school-board member who is married to a public-school principal, Harrison said he could not "in good conscience" support legislation that doesn't prioritize in such a manner.

When it was debated by the House Education Committee last week, Richard, another former school board member, asked Jindal why he needed to leave "C" schools in the legislation.

Jindal said a "C" grade means that up to a third of all students in that school are performing below grade level.

"That's not good enough." Jindal told Richard.

The issue also helped tipped the scales for Gislcair, a member of the Democratic caucus. With Richard and Harrison, he supported an unsuccessful amendment to take "C" schools out of the program.

Dove, part of Jindal's legislative leadership, and Whitney, who campaigned last year on education reform, sided with the lion's share of Republicans, who opposed the amendment in a 46-52 vote.

For the Terrebonne-Lafourche delegation, votes on the "C" amendment and final passage broke down along the same lines.

In fact, across the entire chamber, it was an issue that divided many lawmakers.

Freshman Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, asked one of the bill's supporters what he thought about his own background in what is now a failing school in Acadiana.

"I was an ‘A' student in a ‘D' school. I went to Tulane University, and I have a master's degree. Do you think that my ‘D' school failed me?" Ortego asked.

In response, Rep. Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans, quipped, "I just met you so I really can't tell you."

Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, went on the attack not longer after.

"You went [to Tulane] on a legislative scholarship, didn't you?" he asked Ortego. "It was nice to have that choice, wasn't it?"

Opponents expressed concern that the bill would open "floodgates" for non-certified teachers and "close down" public-school systems.

At one point, Carter compared the legislation's opponents and their subsequent votes to the decision-making process faced by former President Harry Truman before he ordered atomic bombs to be utilized in 1945.

"There's a good chance if he had to get everyone to agree, we'd probably still be in World War II," he said.

As the House debate reached a fevered pitch, Jindal left Baton Rouge to travel to Kingsport, Tenn., where he delivered a speech at Sullivan County's Reagan Day Dinner.

A group of parents' organizations, meanwhile, converged on the Capitol steps to point out "discriminatory practices against students with disabilities" that they said are included in Jindal's bill.

Stephanie Guidry, who has a 6-year-old in the Terrebonne Parish School System, has been visiting Baton Rouge with the groups and on her own for the past two weeks.

Since her daughter has autism, Guidry said a private or parochial school wouldn't have to enroll her child under Jindal's bill, as originally proposed - with or without the vouchers.

As a way of addressing the problem, the House approved an amendment from Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, accommodating students with special needs.

The new provisions require non-public schools to add the needed services that it can provide with only "minor adjustments."

It also calls for the state to create a list of schools that are already working with special needs students or are equipped to accommodate them.

As the bill stands now, "a participating nonpublic school shall not discriminate against a child with special educational needs."

Not all lawmakers were convinced that the amendment would do enough to alleviate concerns.

"That does not provide an opportunity for a child with a special need to take advantage," said Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

Currently, there are 1,800 students receiving taxpayer-funded vouchers in Louisiana.

The proposal would technically make another 380,000 students statewide eligible for the funding.

The administration, however, has said that only 2,000 or so parents would take advantage of the proposed changes to the state's voucher program.

House Bill 976 now moves to the Senate, where similar legislation has already cleared the committee process.

That near-duplicate bill is pending debate before the full Senate and is expected to be taken up early next week.

House Bill 974 by Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, which makes it more difficult for teachers to obtain and maintain tenure, also passed the House by a vote of 64-40 just after midnight.

Voting against the bill were Gisclair and Harrison.

Aside from disagreeing with the merits of the bill, Gisclair has complained that Jindal has been ignoring the opposition and using "intimidation" to push his initiatives through.

He's not alone in that sentiment, either; in a speech from the floor, Harrison urged the House to vote against the measure because teachers were never given an opportunity by Jindal's administration to have a voice in the policymaking process.

"I don't understand why we didn't talk to the people who are most affected by this," Harrison said.

Voting in favor of Jindal's tenure legislation were Dove, Richard and Whitney.

Richard was the only local delegation member to oppose and support the different parts of Jindal's reform package that were handled during Thursday's lengthy debate.

Richard said his constituents expressed more concern over the voucher legislation as compared to the tenure issue.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com