BESE Report: June 2013

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“Course Choice” robs funds from at-risk programs

A scandal-plagued program adopted by the legislature in 2012 will be funded by taking money dedicated to at-risk prekindergarten students and other initiatives aimed at improving student performance.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted Wednesday to divert $2 million from the 8(g) offshore oil settlement fund to pay for the Course Choice program created by Act 2 of 2012.

Course Choice allows individuals, corporations and education institutions to create individual courses that students can take online or on site. The original plan was to fund Course Choice through the Minimum Foundation Program, but that has been ruled unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court.

After that ruling, based on a lawsuit originally filed by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the Department of Education scrambled for money to pay for a scaled-down version of the program. BESE’s vote takes $1 million from program funding prekindergarten programs and other instructional strategies in English Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies and technology.

Another $1 million was stripped from an 8(g) grant program for local school districts.

Superintendent of Education John White has characterized the pared-down Course Choice as a pilot program. That prompted LFT President Steve Monaghan to ask just what the department considers a pilot program to be.

Monaghan pointed out that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher program began as a pilot in New Orleans. It was expanded statewide without the examination of data that is typically expected before a pilot program is allowed to grow. Later studies showed that the academic achievement of voucher students in New Orleans lagged behind that of their public school counterparts.

“How do BESE and the Department of Education define a ‘pilot,’ given the voucher program piloted in 2008 was expanded statewide in 2012 absent of any data and expanded again in 2013, again without a morsel of data,” Monaghan asked.

Before the first child enrolls, Course Choice is already embroiled in scandal. It has been widely reported that a corporate provider tried to sign up students without their knowledge, and that laptop computers were promised to potential Course Choice customers.

The director of Course Choice at the Department of Education, who is paid $145,000 per year, reportedly has no background in education, and commutes to Baton Rouge from his home in Los Angeles.

LFT will be represented on MFP, accountability commissions

After being harshly criticized for excluding representatives of education organizations and school boards from policy discussions, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education agreed to reboot defunct commissions advising on policy regarding the Minimum Foundation and Accountability.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers led the charge for reinstatement of the commissions. LFT was represented on both of them before they were shut down.

But when BESE President Chas Roemer announced his appointments to the commissions, he left off the LFT, as well as the LAE and the Louisiana School Boards Association. Roemer did include organizations like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Council for a Better Louisiana, which have been hostile to public education and supportive of Gov. Jindal’s education agenda.

LFT President Steve Monaghan responded to the slight, calling it “a shame and a step backward.”

Monaghan said that since the committees were formed, LFT and others had seats in order to represent their members. The opinions he brought to those meeting, he said, were not his but the feelings of the Federation’s 21,000 members.

“When there is no justice, there is no peace,” Monaghan reminded board members. “There won’t be a true meeting of the minds until we all sit at the table and at least pretend that we respect each other’s opinions.”

Monaghan urged the board to take a vote on allowing representatives of stakeholder organizations to participate in the commissions. When the smoke cleared, BESE had agreed to do just that.

More changes in store for COMPASS?

Teachers already struggling to come to grips with the new state evaluation were surprised at the June meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to learn that changes are in store for the controversial program.

LFT President Steve Monaghan expressed concern about the proposed tweaks to the system, saying that details are at best sketchy at this point.

Superintendent of Education John White told BESE that, after looking at results of evaluations conducted in 2012-13, he believes that standards in some districts “are more relaxed than is appropriate.”

“The challenge,” White said, “becomes how do you create a system where principals have flexibility but at the same time you do it with rigor.”

Noting that the department has not announced any proposed changes to the evaluation system or a timeline for adopting them, Monaghan said, “There are going to be serious concerns about how this is being implemented.”

During the discussion, BESE Member Lottie Beebe criticized White’s administration for rushing the evaluation program into place too quickly. Teachers will not receive their evaluation information until later this summer, and will have to attend meetings with principals during the break.

“You knew this was not ready,” she told White. “Teachers are coming back this summer uncompensated” for their time.

LFT president says vouchers are based on ideology, not data

When Superintendent of Education John White touted school vouchers as a solution to education problems on Tuesday, LFT President Steve Monaghan called the superintendent’s faith in vouchers into question.

Reporting on the growth of the voucher program from its $25 million expansion in 2012-13 to $45 million in the coming school year, White said that 94% of voucher parents are satisfied with the program.

The superintendent said the program has only been in place for a year.

Monaghan corrected the superintendent, reminding the board that vouchers actually began as a pilot program in New Orleans in 2008, and were expanded statewide last year.

“What I learned,” Monaghan said, “is that pilot does not mean what I believed it means in education.

“You should get a base of information, and make comparisons in regard to the success or failure of the pilot,” he said. “You make decisions based on the data” collected in the pilot program.

Studies of the New Orleans pilot program showed that vouchers did not improve academic achievement, Monaghan said, and the first year’s results of the statewide voucher experiment have been dismal.

While the parents of voucher children may report that they are happy, Monaghan said, “There has been a whopping 30 point difference” between scores of students in voucher schools and the state average.

“You should either expand the program with legitimacy, or you should reel it in because it did not produce the legitimacy of results that you were looking for,” he said.

The LFT president said that expansion of the voucher program is based on political ideology, and not on actual results of the voucher program.

Algiers school merger raises community ire

Tempers flared as a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education committee voted on Tuesday to move ahead with a merger of O. Perry Walker and L.B. Landry High Schools in the Algiers section of New Orleans.

Over the objection of numerous community members, the committee accepted a recommendation from Superintendent of Education John White that the two rival high schools merge in order to conserve resources.

“Not every school that existed prior to Katrina can be maintained,” White said.

On Wednesday, the full board accepted plan proposed by the committee. Supporters said that Walker has a highly regarded principal and rates a “B” grade on the state’s school report card, but a run-down campus. Landry, on the other hand, is rated “F” by the state but has a brand new building.

Community activists charged that even though Landry has a new building, it was set up to fail by the State Recovery School District, which did not provide adequate resources to ensure success.

Sentiment against the merger ran so high that New Orleans BESE member Kira Orange-Jones, who normally supports any measure put forth by White, was one of four members to oppose the plan.

The merged school, to be known as Dr. Lord Beaconsfield Landry Oliver Perry Walker College and Career Preparatory High School, is expected to open on August 12.

Complaints focus on storage of student data

Despite claims that the state has severed ties with a controversial data storage company, parents demanded assurances that no information will be shared with a non-profit corporation called InBloom.

The issue originally arose when it was learned that the Department of Education planned to use InBloom to store the state’s huge collection of student data. InBloom, which is largely financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, reportedly shares that information with companies that develop education programs.

Parents have expressed concerns about how their children’s personal information could be used.

Superintendent of Education John White tried to assuage parental concerns by saying that he terminated the contract with inBloom.

However, a former DOE employee testified that the inBloom contract is valid and that data can be shared with it until the state sends a certified letter severing the agreement.

White agreed to send a certified letter to inBloom. BESE voted to establish a task force to look at co0ncerns about how student data is stored and used.

MFP will pay for Arkansas schooling, BESE decides

Ignoring a recent Supreme Court decision reserving public education funds for Louisiana’s public schools, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decided to funnel money to an Arkansas school through a Richland Parish charter school.

For nearly 100 years, students in the Claiborne Parish town of Junction City have attended school in Junction City Arkansas. The two cities are connected and straddle the state border.

Recently, Claiborne Parish School Board decided to stop paying for parish students to attend school in Arkansas. Parents complained that nearby parish schools are low-performing, and began planning to open a charter school in the town.

Because that school could not be completed in time for the 2013-14 school year, BESE decided to allow students to keep attending school in Arkansas. The students will be fictionally enrolled in the Delhi Charter School, which will send tuition money to the Arkansas school.

A testing center will be established in Arkansas so that the students will take Louisiana standardized tests, and their scores will be attached to the Delhi school’s performance score.

Louisiana School Boards Association Executive Director Scott Richard responded, “There are lots of policy questions that are unanswered.”

Teach for America to receive $1 million state grant

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education agreed to give Teach for America $1 million to recruit and train recent college graduates to work in Louisiana schools. The expectation is that the young teachers will spend two years in challenged schools that have difficulty finding certified teachers in hard-to-staff positions.

The students are trained for six weeks before being assigned to schools. The school district that hires Teach for America recruits pays TFT a $3,000 fee for each recruit placed in a school.

Great, unanswered questions from the BESE meeting

In the course of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s June meeting, a number of questions were asked that went unanswered.

The questions were not rhetorical, and answers were expected but not provided.

Regarding the “Course Choice” pilot program appropriation from 8(g) funds, it was asked, What is the Department of Education’s definition of a pilot program in light of the expansion of the voucher pilot with no attention paid to any data collected during the pilot?

When BESE recommends changes to Title 28, which governs the scope of powers delegated to BESE and the state superintendent of education, will they codify the requirement for the superintendent to be reviewed annually? Will that include requirements for the timing of the review, and what happens if it is delayed?

Will Title 28 revisions include a requirement that the superintendent work with all stakeholders?

With parents taking their children out of Recovery District schools (800 left the RSD’s schools in East Baton Rouge Parish alone), why does the RSD budget continue to balloon, especially for construction projects?

With the state retirement systems facing a big unfunded accrued liability, and with teachers depending on the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana for security in retirement, why are charter schools allowed to opt out of membership in TRSL?

In matters like the merger of schools in Algiers, why are the voices of parents ignored when decisions are made?

Governor signs reverse trigger law

A bill that allows parents to have a say in whether or not schools seized by the state should be returned to local control has been signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

HB 115 by Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) is a so-called “reverse trigger” that allows parents of children whose schools have been seized by the State Recovery School District to ask that their schools be returned to their local school system if they have not performed better than a D or F for three consecutive years.

The law requires signatures from parents of a majority of a school’s students who have been attending the school for at least two years.

The bill was a part of the LFT’s legislative agenda.

New laws exempt disabled students from ACT

Two bills that exempt certain special education students from taking the ACT test were assigned into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

HB 343 by Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite) is now Act 151. It applies to students who are not working toward a high school diploma and have a diagnosed exceptionality. Students whose IEP requires testing will still take the test, as will those whose parents specifically request the testing.

SB 127 by Sen. Gary Smith (D-Norco) is now Act 291. It allows students with disabilities to opt out of the high-stakes tests, and the school’s performance score will not be affected.