One of Louisiana’s two largest teacher unions filed lawsuits on Thursday morning asking a district judge to toss out Gov. Bobby Jindal’s two key bills to overhaul public schools.
“In the haste to steamroll these bills through the Legislature the Constitution was often treated like little more than a list of inconvenient suggestions,” said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, in a prepared statement.
The legal challenges, which ask that the bills be declared unconstitutional, were filed in the 19th Judicial District.
In both cases the state Constitution was violated by including what should have been a number of bills into a single one, according to the lawsuit.
In a prepared statement, Monaghan said that doing so stifled debate.
“Legislators were given little information about the bills, and appeared intimidated into passing them without adequate debate and oversight,” he added.
The lawsuits were expected.
In a prepared statement, Jindal labeled the LFT as part of the “coalition of the status quo.
“Forty four percent of our public schools are failing,” he said. “225,000 students are below grade level, and our state is spending a billion dollars a year on failing schools.
“That’s unacceptable,” Jindal said.
He said opponents “have fought every reform every step of the way, so it is no surprise they are making this last ditch effort to convince the courts to overrule the vote of the people and the Legislature.”
The LFT has long clashed with Jindal on public school issues.
One of the bills under fire, House Bill 974, would make it harder for teachers to earn and keep a form of job protection called tenure.
The other one, House Bill 976, would expand eligibility for some low and middle-income students to qualify for vouchers to attend private and parochial schools.
The LFT opposed both bills, which won final legislative approval in April.
Jindal and other supporters contend the changes will improve the state’s public education system, especially knowing that 44 percent of public schools are rated “D” or “F” by the state.
Louisiana has about 50,000 public school teachers.
For years they earned tenure after three years in the classroom unless major problems surfaced.
Under the bill, those rated as “ineffective” – likely the bottom 10 percent – would lose tenure immediately and could face dismissal proceedings.
New teachers would have to be rated as ‘highly effective” – in the top 10 percent – for five out of six years to become tenured.
The evaluations will start with the 2012-13 school year. Teachers will not face a loss of tenure until the 2013-14 school year — the spring of 2014.
The same bill also requires performance objectives for local superintendents, redefines the role of local school boards, bans the exclusive use of seniority in layoff decisions and allows local officials to revamp salary schedules.
The other bill allows some students who attend public schools rated “C,” “D’” or “F” to apply for state aid to attend private and parochial schools, or top flight public schools.
Jindal has said the change offers students and families another option to escape failing public schools.
But Monaghan said the new law “radically redefines public education” by redirecting dollars long reserved for public school students to finance tuition and other costs at private schools.
The aid goes through a formula called the Minimum Foundation Program, which provides basic state aid to about 700,000 students statewide.
One of the lawsuit also challenges how the MFP was approved on Monday, which was the last day of the nearly three month session.
Most bills require a majority of the 105-member House, which is 53 votes.
But House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, ruled that, as a resolution, it only required a majority of those in the chamber and voting.
The measure, Senate Concurrent Resolution 99, passed the House 51-49.
The legal challenge says that, as such, the measure failed to win a majority of the House as required by the state Constitution.
“The adoption of the MFP was a travesty,” Monaghan said.
The same bill also expands the list of authorizers for charter schools, which are public schools run by non-governmental groups, and sets up common applications for charter school applicants.
The lawsuit on the teacher tenure law names the state of Louisiana as the defendant.
The challenge to the voucher law names the state and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as defendants.
At a courthouse press conference, LFT General Counsel Larry Samuel said the lawsuits are asking for a temporary injunction to halt implementation of the laws.
Monaghan told reporters that putting multiple subjects in one bill was part of an unconstitutional pattern “all the way to the last day.”
Eric Lewis, a Jindal ally on the education front and state director of the Louisiana branch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said teacher unions typically oppose bills like the ones under fire, try to water them down and, as a last resort, challenge the laws in court.
“So this is just another leg in the fight,” Lewis said.
The legal action comes during the application period for vouchers.
Crystal Nixon of Hammond said she is seeking a voucher for her six-year-old son Azariah.
Nixon said she hopes the state subsidy will allow her to move her son from a public school in Hammond to Holy Ghost Catholic School there.
“So this scholarship will help me get him into a better school,” she said.