03/28/2012 04:55 pm ET Updated May 28, 2012

Tea Partiers and Teachers Unions Could Unite to Defend Local Control in Louisiana

Last week, the Louisiana House passed HB974, which would reform teacher tenure in that state, with a bipartisan majority.  This measure radically weakens teacher tenure: in order to receive tenure, a teacher must be rated "highly effective" for five out of six years.  If this teacher is ever rated as "ineffective," he or she immediately loses tenure.  At least 50% of a teacher's effectiveness evaluation will depend upon value-added test score data.  Republicans were not united in the passage of HB974 in the Louisiana House.  Indeed, without the support of Democrats, this measure would not have passed.  The Louisiana State Senate is due to consider this measure shortly: the Education Committee seems currently scheduled to review the legislation on Thursday.

Some "conservative" groups are celebrating the passage of this bill.  This celebration might be more than a little ironic, however, because HB974 seems a text taken straight from the annals of radical progressivism (or perhaps progressive radicalism) rather than traditional conservatism.  Rather than running schools as community enterprises, HB974 pushes in the direction of a quasi-corporate power structure -- with centralized power and a preponderance of statistical diktats.

There's much more to this measure than merely redefining the terms of tenure.  HB974 weakens the power of a town or city to govern its schools.  Under old law, local school boards were the ultimate decision-makers in hiring: the recommendations of school administrators had to be approved by them (and the boards could reject the recommendations of superintendents and principals).  Not anymore.  Under HB974, boards delegate their authority to superintendents.  Rather than the superintendent being an academic advisor and leader for a public school, he or she acquires CEO-like powers.  Superintendents and principals become the ones with the authority to hire and fire under this new measure.

Moreover, the state further ties school board hands.  School boards must establish contracts with performance targets for superintendents.  If these targets are not met, the superintendent's contract must not be renewed.  For districts including at least 75% of Louisiana schools (ones that do not receive an "A" or "B" rating from the state), HB974 specifies in further detail the kinds of targets a superintendent's contract must include.  Whenever a school board decides not to renew a superintendent's contract (for the moment, school boards still have that power), it must file a report with the state explaining its actions.  If budget cuts come and staff must be reduced, HB974 offers a formula for how staff must be reduced, with the least "effective" faculty member in an academic area being let go first.  So much for local discretion.

Moreover, tenure under HB974 ain't quite what it used to be.  Tenure protections are radically weakened by HB974, in ways that might to make traditional conservatives nervous (and not only traditional conservatives, either).  Consider the legislative language describing how a tenured teacher may be dismissed under HB974:

A teacher with tenure shall not be removed from office except upon written and signed charges of poor performance,willful neglect of duty, or incompetency, dishonesty, or immorality, or of being a member of or contributing to any group, organization, movement, or corporation that is by law or injunction prohibited from operating in the state of Louisiana, and then only furnished with a copy of such written charges and given the opportunity to respond. The teacher shall have seven days to respond, and such response shall be included in the teacher's personnel file. At the end of this seven-day time period, the superintendent may terminate the teacher's employment. A teacher shall not be terminated for an "ineffective" performance rating until completion of the grievance procedure established pursuant to R.S. 17:3883(A)(5) if a grievance was timely filed. Within seven days after dismissal, a teacher may request and upon request shall be granted a hearing by a panel composed of a designee of the superintendent, a designee of the principal or the administrative head of the state special school in which the teacher was employed, and a designee of the teacher. In no case shall the superintendent, the principal or state special school administrative head, or teacher designate an immediate family member or any full-time employee of the school system by which the teacher was employed who is under the supervision of the person making the designation.

The key detail about this language is that a tenured teacher need not be found guilty of these charges of poor performance, willful neglect of duty, incompetence, dishonesty, or immorality in order to be dismissed (as current Louisiana law requires).  Instead, HB974 only requires that the teacher be given the charges in writing and be given the opportunity to address these charges.  The charges could be completely mendacious, and the tenured teacher could still lose his or her job at the superintendent's whim.

Current Louisiana law gives school boards the power to review appeals for tenure dismissal.  As it does with many other traditional local powers, HB974 strips the school board of this authority and instead gives the superintendent the ability to review the teacher's case. If the teacher wishes to appeal the superintendent's decision, he or she enters a kind of kangaroo court, where three people review this ruling: a designee of the superintendent, a designee of the principal, and a designee of the teacher.  Under HB974, the principal serves under the superintendent, so the panel called to review the superintendent's decision would be stacked 2-1 with people either appointed by the superintendent or someone under the superintendent's control (the principal).  So much for due process.  (Conceivably, the teacher could then try to appeal to a court to reverse this decision, but this appeal could place considerable costs upon a teacher.)

The superintendent under HB974 basically has the ability to hire and fire at will -- regardless of tenure.  Checks and balances are effectively removed.  It's hard to see how this radical power is in accord with conventional Republican and conservative principles of diffusion of public power and an emphasis on local control.  (And, yes, public schools are public institutions, and these schools are in part funded by local tax dollars.)

Moreover, in enshrining value-added testing performance for teacher evaluations, HB974 idolizes bureaucratic instruments in a way that seems utterly divorced from conservatism.  As New York City's recent value-added testing data dump shows, the results of value-added teacher evaluations can be totally arbitrary as well as disconnected from reality.  Conservatives have made a lot of conceptual and political headway since the 1960s by pointing to the absurd results that centralized bureaucracies could lead to; it seems a rather sad turn, then, for purported conservatives to be embracing such bureaucracies.

Measures that deify value-added testing would seem to give power to the ultimate unelected bureaucrats: those who design these tests and create the complex (and quite possibly flawed) equations used to determine value-added knowledge.  HB974 would seem to accelerate the tendency in Louisiana to wrest control of schools from the local community and transfer it to an appointed (in the case of superintendents) and unelected few.

If someone were interested in centralizing schooling in Louisiana, HB974 combined with HB976 (which expands the power of charter schools and certain central state agencies) would be a good way to do it.  It's no surprise that some Tea Party groups in Louisiana are beginning to mobilize against this measure.  HB974's tendencies would seem to go against the small, localized government that many Tea Partiers claim to support. In the days ahead, perhaps Louisiana will witness the unlikeliest of odd couples: teachers unions and Tea Partiers coming together to defend the tradition of local governance.  Some solid conservatives in the Louisiana House opposed this bill due to their skepticism about big-government schemes.  Republicans hold a much stronger hand in the state senate; perhaps traditional conservatives will collaborate with union allies to halt or slow this move toward centralization.