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Legislators Target Bus Driver Tenure for Elimination

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Education reformers highlight perk unique to Louisiana

Louisiana’s transformative education policy changes should be extended to include school bus drivers who enjoy tenure protections unavailable in other states, according to Rep. Cameron Henry (R-Jefferson) and business representatives.

On Wednesday, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the key components of his reform agenda into law during a ceremony at Redemptorist Elementary School in Baton Rouge. Among other things, House Bill 976 provides for private school tuition to low income students across the state, while House Bill 974 raises the bar for teachers to acquire and maintain tenure.

While the national news media has focused primarily on the provision of HB 976 that expands the Orleans Parish scholarship program into a statewide school voucher system, Brigitte Nieland Vice President of Communications and Director of Education and Workforce Development for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), views the tenure bill as an equally significant policy change that should not be limited to teachers.

“There were a number of teachers who supported the tenure changes, but felt like it was slap in their face to make these changes while excluding bus drivers from any reforms,” Nieland said. “The idea here is to put everyone on an even par, that’s only fair.”

Under Rep. Henry’s HB 716, bus driver tenure would be repealed for any new hires, but maintained for existing employees. A specific cut-off date has not yet been set. Henry expects his bill to come up for consideration in the House Education Committee next Wednesday April 25.  Rep. Joe Harrison is sponsoring a similar bill (HB 293), but Henry anticipates that both proposals will be blended together into single piece of legislation.

“Louisiana is the only state that has tenure for bus drivers,” Henry said. “In my discussions with the business community, we all felt that we could not have these reforms go into effect without also addressing the rules as they applied to bus drivers. The idea here is to grandfather the changes in so that current employees are not impacted. But going forward, we can’t keep the status quo.”

Dr. Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), remains skeptical about the long-term implications of the policy changes Gov. Jindal his supporters in the state legislature have implemented.

“There was big rush to push all of these items through and they should have been given more time and consideration,” he said. “There was a mad dash without carefully reviewing what all of this meant. We have essentially gotten rid of tenure and this does have implications for due process. The bus driver proposal is an extension of the same agenda.”

In response to union criticisms, Nieland said that she expects state employees to be treated in an equitable and fair manner once the tenure changes go into effect.

“It’s just not accurate to say that there will be no due process without the existing tenure system,” she maintained. “Right now we are in a position where bus drivers cannot be removed from their position, even with a DUI (driving while intoxicated) conviction.”

The problem is not “a lack of due process,” but that the existing tenure laws insulate teachers and bus drivers who are not meeting their responsibilities, Nieland added.

The tenure reform package Jindal has now signed into law is linked with a new teacher evaluation system set to go into effect later this year that incorporates student test scores as a key part of the teacher performance assessment. The new evaluation system became law last year  under Act 54 in an effort to “end blanket job protection in the form of tenure to teachers who are ineffective after one year” a “fact sheet” from the governor’s office explains.

After being rated as ineffective after one year a teacher would lose tenure and become an “at will” employee, as a result of the new law. The “ineffective” designation established by The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) applies to the bottom 10 percent of teachers statewide.

Districts could start dismissal proceedings for teachers who are assessed as being ineffective over a two-year period. After three-years of ineffective ratings, a teacher could lose their certification.  Moreover, teachers would not be eligible for tenure until after they have earned high performance marks over a five year period. Under current law, they receive automatic tenure after just three years.

“The unions do not speak for all of the teachers and we were in touch with several agreed that changes need to be made,” Nieland said. “But we also recognized that we could limit policy changes to just teachers. The tenure system we have for bus drivers is not something we see in other states and it needs to be addressed.”

Kevin Mooney is the Capitol Bureau Reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at kmooney@pelicaninstitute.org and followed on Twitter.