BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Louisiana's Senate has put Gov. Bobby Jindal on the verge of winning a historic makeover of public education in the state with two votes Wednesday for bills that would diminish teacher tenure, alter the power of local school boards and establish a statewide private school voucher program.
The House has already passed both measures but will have to vote again on a few Senate language changes. Barring unforeseen setbacks, the measures will gain final legislative passage Thursday morning and be on Jindal's desk for his signature next week.
Supporters of the measures say they are needed to fix an education system that continues to lag the rest of the nation in student performance. Opponents say there is no proof the measures will work and that they unfairly blame teachers for Louisiana's education ills.
The voucher bill was approved 24-15 late Wednesday night after more than six hours of debate. The tenure bill won approval 23-16 on Wednesday afternoon after a debate of less than two hours.
The latter bill ends current tenure practice, tied to evaluations every three years in which teachers are graded as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The Jindal administration says the system fails to weed out bad teachers or reward the best. The new system would require five years of "highly effective" ratings to earn tenure and continued evaluations to keep it. Those ratings are earned based on student performance and on observations by principals.
Often less-noticed are provisions in the bill that limit local school boards' authority to hire and fire teachers, strengthening the hand of superintendents and principals in such matters.
The voucher bill is even more far-reaching. It will expand to the entire state a program now in effect in New Orleans, the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program. It provides state taxpayer-funded private school tuition to students attending poorly performing schools who are from low-and-moderate income families.
But the bill also creates new paths to create charter schools, public schools getting public money but run with broad autonomy from state and local education officials. Now, the state or local school boards authorize charters. The bill establishes a procedure that would allow a nonprofit corporation "having an educational mission" to authorize charters. Those would include colleges, philanthropic organizations or nonprofits established by a parish or city.
The bill could further diminish local school boards' power by making it easier for the state to take over failing schools, as has already happened in New Orleans -- where most schools were taken over after Hurricane Katrina -- and in a handful of other jurisdictions. State law already allows a state takeover of a school failing for four consecutive years. The bill says that the state school board could put a school into the state Recovery School District if it has been failing for three consecutive years. if more than half the parents of students at the school sign a petition for such a change.
Backers of both measures say they are needed to provide Louisiana parents with more education options, while providing a badly needed shake-up of public school governance.
"Teachers should be awarded for performance, not just because they are teachers. Not just because they have been there for a long time," Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, the Senate sponsor of the measures, told the Senate as debate opened.
About 100 red-clad teachers and other opponents of the measure looked on from a rear balcony and side galleries. Hundreds more had rallied outside the Capitol before the votes.
"You're holding the teacher responsible for the whole problem," Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, usually a Jindal ally, told Appel. He complained that good teachers who miss the high tenure mark become "at-will" employees who can be fired for subjective reasons.
One surprise Wednesday: the Jindal administration ended its insistence that the bills be passed without amendments. Without amendments, Senate passage would have sent the bills to Jindal's desk. Now, the House has to vote up or down on the Senate changes. It was unclear when the House would vote but it appeared unlikely the bill would reach Jindal for his signature before next week.
None of the amendments changed the thrust of the measures.
One substantive amendment to the tenure bill was offered by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton. It simply said that if a teacher is rated highly effective based on objective performance marks but "ineffective" by a principal -- which could result in loss of tenure -- the principal could not serve on a three-member appeal committee appointed by the local superintendent.
On the voucher and charter school bill, amendments included ones designed to strengthen public scrutiny of private entities getting the public money. For instance, one amendment requires annual independent audits of non-profit corporations given the power to authorize charters; others require charter authorizers to comply with public meetings and records laws and the state ethics code.
But the administration fought off many other amendments, including one by Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte. That amendment was designed to ensure that local money allocated through the state education funding formula is not drained from local districts by the voucher bill, which calls for the "state" and "local" share of the complicated education funding formula to follow a voucher student to a private school. The amendment failed 10-29.