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Changing of La. Guard Brings Fresh Look at Schools

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In a state known for flamboyant leaders, Mike Foster boasted on the campaign trail last fall that he was bland. But many educators across Louisiana are waiting to see if the new Republican governor's education ideas are so mild-mannered.

Mr. Foster is leading a changing of the guard. His chief education adviser is a prominent charter school expert. Louisiana also has a political veteran as its new state schools chief, several new state school board members, and a fresh slate of legislative leaders.

And much like Mr. Foster, a former state senator who defected from the Democratic Party to run for governor, Louisiana is becoming part of a more Republican South. Democrats maintain control of the legislature, but they lost seats in both chambers this year.

In this new political atmosphere, Mr. Foster is invoking a decidedly activist K-12 education mantra: flexibility from state officials in exchange for stronger local accountability. The idea is to reward or penalize schools based on their students' achievement.

Gov. Foster has said he wants to run Louisiana like a business--something the multimillionaire knows firsthand from managing his land, sugar, and oil holdings. He says he wants to lift Louisiana "off the bottom."

The state's children are among the country's poorest. Its teachers are among the lowest-paid. The state has one of the highest dropout rates. And only Guam scored worse than 4th graders in Louisiana on the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests. Louisiana shared its spot with California.

Educators say they will watch to be sure the state develops a system to fairly judge local schools' success or failure, ensuring that poor schools aren't the only ones punished while wealthy schools reap the state's proposed rewards. Amid such anticipation, Mr. Foster's agenda is still emerging.

Early Setbacks

And it is off to a shaky start.

In a special legislative session that ended April 19, nearly all of Mr. Foster's education proposals failed.

He incurred the wrath of many education groups when, in an effort to provide constitutional protection for higher education funding, he proposed making it easier to cut the state's K-12 budget in times of financial crisis.

Gov. Foster also unsuccessfully tried to revamp the state's charter school law. Charter schools generally operate outside the normal state or school district controls while receiving state funding for the children enrolled. Louisiana lawmakers passed a charter school law last year that created a limited pilot program in eight districts. Only a handful of schools are expected to open in the fall--a poor showing triggered largely by a restrictive charter law, according to the governor's education adviser, Louann A. Bierlein.

Ms. Bierlein helped craft Arizona's charter school program, one of the most expansive in the nation.

"We don't know yet if she's a one-note musician--wanting to simply expand charter schools," Fred F. Skelton, the president of the 17,000-member Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said of Ms. Bierlein. "We'll have to wait and see."

Charter schools may be one area in which the newly appointed state school chief, Sen. Cecil J. Picard, parts company with the Foster administration. Mr. Picard will take office at the end of this year's legislative session.

The former chairman of the Senate education committee sponsored the current charter school law--which deliberately limits charter schools.

"It's like building a prototype," Mr. Picard, a Democrat, said. "You need to field-test and evaluate before you start mass production."

Vouchers Discussed

Mr. Foster's long-range education agenda is being shaped by a 23-member panel he named in March. Following a group set up by Mr. Foster's predecessor, Democrat Edwin W. Edwards, the panel is charged with devising a reform plan that could also be used to apply for federal money through the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

During his election bid, Mr. Foster suggested that he would likely discontinue Louisiana's participation in Goals 2000 because he believed it would allow overseers in Washington to exert too much control over the state's schools. He has since reconsidered that position, Ms. Bierlein said, and is moving ahead with great caution.

The panel drafting the governor's long-range reform plan is launching a public relations blitz to garner support for the plan. Broadly, the draft calls for setting high academic standards, turning over more control to individual schools and districts, and better preparing children to start school.

But the ideas that have received the most attention so far concern school accountability. Under the draft plan, schools would have three years to demonstrate "continuous progress," judged by several indicators. Each school would have its own improvement targets. Schools that exceeded the targets might get cash rewards. Those that failed would first get technical assistance but could ultimately incur sanctions. The penalties might include reconstituting the school, reshuffling school personnel, or giving parents vouchers to send those children to other public or private schools.

The final version of the long-range plan may move to the legislature as early as next year. Until then, observers are left to ponder what taste Gov. Foster's changes will leave.

Ms. Bierlein said the reforms will take some getting used to.

"Louisiana has been very state-driven in education, from the state salary schedule to textbook selection," she said. "The notion of trusting the locals is very new."

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