Cram session mars education debate

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Things are moving in rare haste at the Capitol, a place where the work of a legislative session usually starts slow and builds tempo as policy debates percolate over time.

The pace, specifically the speeding of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education overhaul proposals, has become a distraction and has sparked a series of back-and-forth attacks that have little to do with the substance of the measures.

Whatever the intention, the handling of the Jindal bills feeds speculation that the governor is trying to strong-arm legislators, rather than having a deep discussion about sweeping changes in the direction of education of thousands of Louisiana students.

The proposals would use tax dollars to pay for students to attend private schools, change financing methods for education involving hundreds of millions of dollars and determine how teachers are paid and their jobs protected.

Such changes should get tough scrutiny to ensure the legal details are solid and can stand up to judicial review. They also must protect children and set strong standards for teachers.

The session doesn’t end until June 4, but the pace has been frenzied.

The education reform bills zoomed through House and Senate education panels last week, in marathon debates that stretched into the long hours of the night when they could have stretched over days and weeks to design strong policy.

Teachers who lined up by the hundreds at the Capitol were limited in their ability to speak, amendments were devised and discussed hastily and lawmakers who are Jindal allies agreed to limit questions in the House committee to fit the discussion into one day.

Jindal said the ideas contained in the measures have been debated and discussed for months, since the governor outlined his recommendations in a January speech. However, details of the complex bills have only been available for two weeks.

“I make no apologies for showing a sense of urgency,” Jindal said.

But even supporters quietly question the wisdom of fast-tracking the measures without trying to work with critics on nuances and to make certain the proposals achieve the stated goals of improving student performance in a state where one-third of public school students perform below grade level.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who had praised the Republican Jindal for tackling the tough subject and supports many of the ideas, complained loudly about the maneuvering.

“If this is such a great reform package, it should be able to stand the test of review. This is a democracy. This isn’t a dictatorship,” Landrieu said.

A nonpartisan government watchdog group, the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said the Jindal administration was right to get straight to debate on the proposals.

“But these bills are complex and contain many ideas new to the Louisiana education scene. The legislation should be given thorough discussion reflective of the massive changes they entail,” PAR wrote in a commentary. “The committee stage is an appropriate venue to address controversial issues and draft carefully discussed changes to the bills.”

PAR questioned how that level of attention could be done well if all the proposals were stuffed into one day-long hearing. “Haste is a poor companion of genuine progress,” the organization said.

The handling of the proposals gave opponents more ground to criticize them as a political ploy by a GOP governor trying to build up points with conservative groups rather than a serious policy discussion.

Jindal said he’s amenable to ideas that would strengthen his education proposals, and he stressed that lawmakers have several weeks to debate the measures.

“There’s every opportunity for people to offer their ideas, their reviews, their comments,” he said. “We just wanted to make sure there was plenty of time to deliberate these bills.”

That’s the kind of deliberation that’s typically done in legislative committees over time, rather than in marathon cram sessions.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers state politics for The Associated Press.