Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Legislation making it tougher for Louisiana public school teachers to earn and keep the job protection known as tenure won state Senate approval 23-16 on Wednesday, edging Gov. Bobby Jindal closer to the major legislative achievement of his young second term: a broad, historic makeover of public education in a state that lags most of the nation in school performance.

The measure also limits local school boards' authority to hire and fire teachers. And it strengthens the hand of local superintendents and principals in such matters. But debate has largely centered on its effect on longtime teachers. It has already been approved by the House but must go back to that body for approval of minor Senate amendments.

Once the tenure bill was approved, senators immediately launched into debate on an equally far-reaching measure establishing a statewide private school voucher program and easing the way for creation of more charter schools.

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. About 100 red-clad teachers and other opponents of the measure looked on from a rear balcony and side galleries.

The tenure bill would end the 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 on standardized tests and on observations by principals.

Opponents said the bill puts too much of the blame for Louisiana's education ills on teachers, without enough consideration for instructors who might be good teachers stuck with especially difficult classes.

'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 allowed a few, relatively minor amendments to the tenure bill, meaning it must go back to the House, where the original was approved in a rare post-midnight session last week. It was unclear how quickly a House vote would occur. The administration had resisted amendments until Wednesday and it was once thought both measures could reach his desk by Friday. It was unclear when the House would vote but it appeared unlikely the bill would reach Jindal for his signature before next week.

The substantive amendment to the tenure bill was 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.

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