A two-year battle in Louisiana over procedures for removing ineffective school teachers ended Oct. 15 when the state’s Supreme Court upheld the state’s effort to change the tenure laws.
Louisiana was one of several states around the country addressing how to deal with the difficulty of terminating poor teachers. Teacher tenure laws were a major issue in California, New Jersey, and New York in 2014. Michigan changed its teacher tenure laws in 2011.
Kevin Kane, president of the Louisiana think tank Pelican Institute for Public Policy, said for years New Orleans had struggled with what to do about low-performing teachers. It was very difficult to get rid of them, he said.
“Now, if teachers are not performing, they lose their tenure and you can get rid of them,” he said. “It’s tying tenure to performance, which I think makes a lot of sense.”
New Tenure System
Under the new law (known as Act 1), a teacher in Louisiana loses tenure if he or she receives a performance rating of “ineffective.” The teacher can go through a grievance procedure to regain tenure. A teacher can also reacquire tenure by being rated “highly effective” five times in a six-year period.
A key provision was the appeal process for teachers who want to fight their termination. The new law allows a review hearing to be heard by a disciplinary hearing officer. That hearing officer can reverse the superintendent’s decision to terminate and restore the teacher to duty. The hearing officer must be a mediator approved by the American Arbitration Association or the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an attorney, or a retired member of the judiciary.
The law gives the school board the ability to challenge in court the arbitrator’s ruling if the arbitrator finds the superintendent’s actions were “arbitrary or capricious.”
The Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) union initially expressed concern about the tenure hearing. The union stated the law originally called for a three-person panel that would make a recommendation to the superintendent.
“In other words, the three-person panel conducts nothing more than a ‘feel good’ event, and then makes a recommendation that the superintendent (who has already terminated the teacher anyway) has the right to reject,” wrote Larry Samuel, general counsel for the LFT. “The outcome is that this law is a farce. It is a sham. It is an insult to every educator in this state.”
But Barry Landry, director of public affairs for the Louisiana Department of Education, said the teacher groups and legislators worked those issues out.
Union Expresses Satisfaction
The union and legislators worked together during the 2014 legislative session to address concerns by adopting Act 570, which was made effective June 9th.
Now, an independent arbitrator will hear discipline and dismissal cases, not the three-person panel.
“Act 570 should serve as a model for future cooperation between educators and lawmakers,” the union wrote in a statement posted on its website.
“The legislation gives principals and superintendents freedom from politics to do the right thing for children, to honor effective teaching, and to make common-sense decisions about those who serve our children in the classroom,” Landry said in an email to School Reform News. “Our children are as smart and capable as any in America. They deserve an education system in which adults make decisions based on merit and high expectations.”
Union Sought to Block Law
The debate on tenure was before the Supreme Court because the union claimed bundling several education issues under one bill violated the “single object requirement” for legislative bills in New Orleans.
Kane said education reform was a big issue for Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2012.
“Rather than a dozen separate bills to steer through legislative process, they put up a couple of big bills,” Kane said.
The state Supreme Court ruled the law didn’t violate the state Constitution because there was a “natural connection” among all the provisions that dealt with improving elementary and secondary education through tenure reform and performance standards of teachers.
Tom Gantert ([email protected]) is senior capitol correspondent for Michigan Capitol Confidential, a daily news site of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Image by Derek Bridges.