Any way you slice it, there were a lot of bills filed for the regular session focusing on both K-12 and postsecondary education. For colleges and universities most of the proposals deal with efforts to fix problems – either real or perceived – and give institutions a bit more of a break than they’ve been able to manage in recent years.
But on the K-12 side it’s hard to say anything but that this year’s legislative agenda is designed to move Louisiana backwards. Clearly, some of the bills are a part of the governor’s package and deal with issues he has been talking about for some time. Others come directly from legislators. But taken together they amount to a serious effort to retreat from many of the reforms that have yielded us steady improvements in student performance, increased graduation rates, and better preparation for students going to college.
By far, the biggest attacks are directed at Louisiana’s various school choice options, particularly charter schools and students served through the scholarship, or voucher, program. All together there are nearly two dozen bills dealing with choice issues and their basic goal seems to be to restrict and limit options for students and families in both of those programs.
Hand-in-hand with that, the usual threats to school accountability in the state continue, but there are also some new attacks on our progress that would have to give almost anyone pause. Among them:
- Removing the state requirement that local superintendents in C, D, or F school districts have performance targets as part of their contracts. Why, do you suppose, would anyone seriously think that’s a good thing?
- Ending the requirement that students take end-of-year state tests to measure their performance. Not only would this seem to violate federal law and jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars of federal education support, it totally destroys the notion of any accountability in public education.
- Requiring BESE to review and revise Louisiana’s academic standards beginning no later than January. These are the same standards, by the way, they just reviewed and revised this year.
- Allowing individual schools and districts to choose their own content standards and tests. Now if you want chaos and havoc in public education, this would seem to be the way to go.
As unfortunate as all that is, on the higher education side, it’s a totally different story. While most of what colleges are worried about revolves around funding, there are a number of proposals to make both big and small changes in various aspects of postsecondary education. The area, by far, with the most bills filed deals with TOPS. More than a dozen TOPS bills have been introduced and they seek to do a greater variety of different things than we’ve seen before. They include:
- Decoupling TOPS from tuition so that if tuition goes up the TOPS award might not cover the difference.
- Tightening the eligibility requirements for TOPS by increasing either the ACT score or GPA needed to qualify.
- Requiring students to repay a portion of their TOPS award if they lose their eligibility or drop out.
- Paying only 80-percent of tuition costs for freshman students, 90-percent for sophomores and waiting until the student’s junior and senior years to cover the full tuition.
- Providing TOPS eligibility only to students studying in fields that lead to four- or five-star jobs, which are generally considered high paying and in demand.
Other higher education legislation includes another go at either creating a single governing board for higher education or strengthening the authority of the Board of Regents, providing schools with tuition authority, and creating avenues that could lead to the closure, merger or consolidation of schools.
Add all of these bills together and you have a pretty hefty education agenda this session. And while the higher education bills seem to be directed at dealing with some structural issues that are fairly well recognized, that’s unfortunately not the case on the K-12 side.
Louisiana has been on a long path of education reform focused on the wellbeing of students and we have seen real and measurable improvement over that time. A lot of that is because we have raised expectations, given parents more school options and held everyone accountable in a transparent and understandable way.
Now many of our leaders are trying to shift gears and move us in a direction which can only be described as backwards. That’s not the way Louisiana needs to go nor is it an outcome that that children of our state should have to accept.