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School Turnarounds, Teacher Training Next 'Mission' for Louisiana

After last year's sweeping and highly controversial changes to Louisiana public schools highlighted by a big expansion in vouchers, Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White unveiled the next set of changes he would like to see to the state's K-12 system, headlined by an expansion of teacher resources and fostering networks to offer pre-kindergarten programs that cover the entire state.

In a speech at an elementary school just outside of New Orleans Feb. 20, White laid out a five-point plan that he said would be the "second stage" of the state's education "mission." It's called "Louisiana Believes". On page six of the report, you can begin to read the basic elements of what he wants next:

• White wants to oversee the creation "pilot networks" that will identify all 3- and 4-year-olds in their parishes, educate all 4-year-olds, and train teachers. By 2015, these networks will be ramped up to cover all pre-school kids in Louisiana. This is important, he said, because right now, only 54 percent of kids entering kindergarten in the Pelican State can recognize 26 letters and count to 20.

• To help prepare schools for the Common Core State Standards, the superintendent proposes to create 2,000 "Teacher Leaders" and to end "top-down" curricula in schools. This will "free teachers to learn the new standards," according to White, a phrase that some might find strikes an odd note. A "toolbox" for teachers would also be created, an apparent reference to online resources teachers can access.

• There's a section on special education here, although the kicker is that the Louisiana department's "special education blueprint" won't be unveiled until this summer. However, White does reference data reporting, changes to how special education is funded, and "school choice" as highlights of the plan.

• The Career Diploma will get an overhaul so that getting one will require students to either get two years of "workplace-based" education or two years of education at a technical college. The "blueprint" for this plan will be released in April. Right now, White noted, two-thirds of adults in the state have no "workforce credential" (a degree from either a four-year or two-year college).

• Finally, the Louisiana Believes plan would match funds for new partnerships to turn around schools that get an F grade from the state. The state wants partnerships to expand and to create more alternatives to existing F schools. Right now, 63,000 students in Louisiana attend such schools, White noted.

That last bit likely won't sit well with traditional education advocates in Louisiana, who see the policies pushed by White and Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, as roughly the equivalent of a kick in the shin for existing K-12 public schools. Next month, the state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case regarding the constitutionality of the voucher program signed by Jindal last year. A state District Court judge in Louisiana last year ruled it unconstitutional.

The respective GOP chairmen of the Senate and House education committees in Louisiana, Sen. Conrad Appel and Rep. Steve Carter, spoke before White at the event, and it's hard to imagine that White's proposals will run into very heavy opposition in a Louisiana legislature dominated by Republicans. Of course, some changes and tinkering may occur. However, there doesn't appear to be anything quite as explosive as last year's voucher expansion.

In case the politics of the proposals aren't clear to you, White said this during the speech: "The last thing we need is a bunch of new government programs." Of course, it's fair to ask whether some of what White's proposing actually could match the definition of "government programs," to the extent to which government money is required.

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