Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bills in the current legislative session and the recent resignation of Paul Pastorek bring our state to a crucial fork in the road to a better education system.

Most of the buzz surrounding the current legislative session has revolved around the projected $1.6 billion shortfall in the state budget. Though the fiscal issues capture the headlines, there is actually an abundance of legislative instruments that have been filed on the education front — some good bills that maintain the forward progression of public education reform, and some bad instruments that would turn back the clock and further protect the status quo.

Two good bills were considered in the House Education Committee the second week of May. House Bill 421 by Rep. Steve Carter is an excellent complement to current charter school law. It would allow businesses to reserve seats at the school for their employees’ dependents in exchange for major donations of land, facilities, renovations to facilities or technology. If it passes, not only would quality educational opportunities for students continue to expand, but this bill could also be a creative tool to recruit new businesses into the state, making it a major economic development incentive and a possible lifeline to rural, under-served areas.

Another good bill, House Bill 101 by Rep. Rickey Hardy, was also heard. This bill would eliminate tenure for bus drivers hired after July 1, 2011. Did you know that, after three years on the job, school bus drivers receive tenure in Louisiana? This tenure law was enacted in the 1940s, and our country’s changed a lot since then. Job protections such as this for the public sector while the private sector has to adapt to the real world are being challenged around the nation, and it’s time our state takes a look at them, too.

In spite of major opposition from education bureaucrats and teacher unions to these two bills, both were passed out of committee and were considered on the House floor. Unfortunately, the House killed HB 101 by a vote of 33-62, but representatives voted on the side of taxpayers, parents, and students and approved HB 421 by a wide margin. It now goes to the Senate.

Another significant event that will impact the future of education in Louisiana occurred Tuesday, May 10. The Louisiana education reform movement lost a powerful ally when state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek announced he was leaving to accept a position with a multi-national aerospace company.

During his tenure, Pastorek drove reform, and drove it hard, often putting him at odds with the traditional defenders of the status quo. This now-vacant position is extremely critical going forward, and it is essential that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education appoint someone in the interim who will not only continue the reforms in place, but spur even more accomplishments in the future.

There is a danger that someone will be appointed who would have the state return to the bad practices of the past that prevented reforms. Those were days when students graduated without being able to read and schools continued to spend your hard earned tax dollars no matter if they were successfully teaching children or totally failing to do so. That was the era when Louisiana was at the bottom of every list of educational progress. Our state cannot afford to return to that system of failure. BESE will soon face a momentous decision. It can select a true reformer who will continue to move education forward in Louisiana or it can appoint another relic from the past.

Dan Juneau is president of the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry. Brigitte Nieland, vice president and council director for LABI’s Education Council, contributed to this column.

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