Louisiana Legislature’s education bills will have an impact from K-college

Teacher pay and literacy also a focus this legislative session

By: - June 16, 2021 1:56 pm

Louisiana House of Representatives members vote on a bill. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)

During the legislative session that ended Thursday, the Louisiana Legislature passed bills that mandated kindergarten for 5-year-olds, created a program to help young students struggling with literacy, raised teacher pay, tinkered with TOPS eligibility and mandated that university employees who have information regarding sexual harassment or assault report it.

Here are some highlights of the education bills they passed.  

Investing in early education

In a virtual news conference in January, Louisiana State Superintendent Cade Brumley said only 46% of Louisiana’s 3rd graders are on track to master English and only 43 percent are on track to master math. 

During a floor debate over a bill from Sen. Cleo Fields (D-Baton Rouge) that would mandate kindergarten for 5-year-olds, Rep. Jason Hughes (D-New Orleans), said 160,000 students in grades K-5 in Louisiana cannot read. “When you take into account (students in) 6th through 12th grade,” he said, “the results are even more disappointing.”

The Louisiana Legislature passed Fields’ bill that will, with some exceptions, mandate that in 2022, the state’s 5-year-olds attend kindergarten.

Louisiana will join 19 other states and the District of Columbia that, according to the Education Commission of the United States, already require kindergarten.

It’s not known what percentage of the state’s 5-year-olds are not being sent to kindergarten. According to a fiscal note attached to the legislation, “The number of students who currently enter first grade without attending Kindergarten is indeterminable. Not all districts track these students, and district records may not distinguish those who attended Kindergarten outside the parish or through a nonpublic school.”

The Legislature also created the “Steve Carter Literacy Program” in memory of the former Republican state representative and 2020 candidate for East Baton Rouge mayor-president. Carter died of COVID-19 in January.

The bill would allow the Department of Education to pay for extra tutoring, reading materials, after-school and summer programs, mentorship programs, etc. for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade who either read below grade level or are “at risk for reading difficulties.” The program is also designed to help 4th and 5th grade students “who scored below mastery in English language arts on the state assessment in the prior school year” or were “recommended by an English teacher.”

“Louisiana students have struggled with literacy for decades,” Rep. Steve McKnight (R-Baton Rouge) said in April when he introduced the bill to the House Education Committee. “It’s time for literacy to become a priority in our state,” he said.

According to the 2021 Louisiana Survey released in April by LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab, a majority of Louisianians say they’d support more spending for early childcare, even if it means paying more in taxes.

Seventy-six percent of Louisianians support increasing state spending on childcare for infants and toddlers from low-income families, according to the survey, and 53 percent support raising taxes to pay for increased spending on childcare for all families, regardless of income.

Protecting sexual assault victims on college campuses

In response to reports of inaction and negligence from LSU officials in the face of Title IX violations, the Louisiana Legislature passed several bills that, among other things, clarifies to whom higher education employees should report Title IX violations and requires the termination of higher education employees who don’t report known violations.

Senate Bill 230, introduced by Sen. Beth Mizell (R-Franklinton), proposed that any employee who fails to report a known power-based violence violation “shall be terminated” and requires the chancellor of a college or university to report and publish the number of the school’s employees who have completed annual power-based violence training. 

Campuses will also have to report “the number of complaints which resulted in a finding that power-based violations occurred, the number of complaints in which the finding of power-based violations resulted in discipline or corrective action, the type of discipline or corrective action taken, the amount of time it took to resolve each complaint, the number of reports of retaliation and the findings of any investigations of reports of retaliation.”

The bill defines “Power-based violence” as “any form of interpersonal violence intended to control or intimidate another person through the assertion of power over the person,” and includes: dating violence, domestic abuse, “peeping tom activities,” sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking.

Senate Bill 232, authored by Sen. Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge) creates “the Louisiana Power-Based Violence Review Panel” designed to work in conjunction with Mizell’s bill to “evaluate the policies that we have put into place to see if they are working… and then for us to come back and make the recommendations, change the law, then advise the Legislature and the governor,” she said in a committee meeting.

House Bill 409, authored by Aimee Freeman (D-New Orleans), does many of the same things Mizell’s bill does, including mandating employees report known power-based violence violations under threat of termination, and also provides more clarity on to whom university employees should report violations. And House Bill 394, authored by Rep. Neil Riser (R-Columbia), requires colleges and universities to publish updated campus security policies and crime statistics on their website every year.

The bills were part of that package of bills created in response to findings and testimony during the three different sexual misconduct hearings the Louisiana Senate Select Committee on Women and Children held regarding a sexual misconduct scandal at LSU. Freeman said during committee in April her bill “addresses all the levels of trying to keep our students safe” and focuses on “accountability.”

Husch Blackwell law firm released a 150-page investigative report last month that concluded that LSU hadn’t made enough of an effort to combat sexual misconduct and violence on its Baton Rouge campus, hadn’t sufficiently staffed the Title IX office, which handles campus cases of sexual misconduct and violence, and had no clear policies in place about when employees are required to report sexual violence and sexual misconduct.

The LSU scandal has had a ripple effect across the country, but no one who has lost a job was still employed at LSU. Former LSU football coach Les Miles was fired by the University of Kansas. KU also fired the athletic director who hired Miles. F. King Alexander, who served as LSU president between 2013 and 2019 when a number of the allegations of sexual misconduct and violence occurred, resigned as Oregon State University president. 

Verge Ausberry and Miriam Segar, two LSU athletics administrators who did nothing when they learned of several allegations of violence and misconduct against football players, were suspended but not fired.

TOPS eligibility expanded

In an effort to help high school students affected by COVID-19, the Louisiana Legislature decided that high school graduates applying for TOPS should have a grace period to take and submit scores from their college entrance exams and that high school students who began homeschool relatively late should be eligible for the college tuition scholarship.

Senate Bill 99, sponsored by Sen. Cleo Fields (D-Baton Rouge), would allow high school graduates who can prove they couldn’t take the ACT by April because of COVID-19 concerns to submit those test scores as late as September and still be eligible for TOPS.

The bill was signed into law June 4.

The Legislature also approved House Bill 635 by Rep. Cedric Glover (D-Shreveport), which adds African-American history courses to the list of classes high school students can take to be eligible for TOPS. Currently, high school students looking to complete the social studies requirement for TOPS must take two of either: Western Civilization, European History, or AP European History; World Geography, AP Human Geography, or IB Geography; World History, AP World History, or World History IB; History of Religion; IB Economics, Economics, AP Macroeconomics, or AP Microeconomics.

Pay raises for teachers

The Louisiana Legislature approved annual raises of $800 for teachers and $400 for support workers like cafeteria workers and other staff last week, doubling Gov. John Bel Edwards’ pay increase proposal for teachers and school employees in his 2021 budget proposal before session.

The governor and Louisiana Legislature increased teacher pay by $1,000 and support staff pay by $500 in 2019, after years of school employee pay remaining mostly stagnant. But last year, Edwards did not propose a pay raise — angering teachers who accused him of breaking a promise he had made to them.

Louisiana has about 50,000 public school teachers who make a little over $50,000 per year on average. Their average pay is well below the national average, and the state’s teacher unions have been complaining for years about the gap between what they make and what the average teacher makes.

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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is a former Louisiana Illuminator reporter. Prior to working with the Illuminator, Canicosa worked for Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon. Canicosa earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.