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BESE Report: October 2012

This month’s meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education raised some important questions.

Does BESE have a problem with pregnant women and the military?

A very reasonable proposal by a BESE member to protect pregnant teachers and active military personnel from potentially unfair evaluations was unnecessarily delayed last Wednesday. Superintendent of Education John White diverted the measure to two different committees and his own staff rather than allow a vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The rule, proposed by District 8 member Caroline Hill, would have reduced the number of absences by a pregnant teacher or one on military leave to qualify for invalidation of an evaluation score.

Current rules require a teacher to have 60 days of combined approved absences in order to have an evaluation score invalidated, with no exceptions for maternity or military leave. Earlier this year, BESE raised the requirement from 30 days of absences.

Hill’s proposed rule would have allowed a combination of 30 days of maternity leave and 10 days of any other kind of leave; or 20 days of military leave and 20 days of any other type of approved leave to qualify for invalidation of evaluation scores.

Most women require and take about 30 days of maternity leave

When Hill moved to begin approval of her rule change, White objected, saying that it must first be referred to his staff for suggestions, and then move to the Committee on Educator Excellence and the Superintendents Advisory Council. That means it probably won’t be heard again by BESE until at least January.

Discussion of this rule was very different than when BESE voted to reduce the number of absences required to invalidate an evaluation score.

When that rule was proposed, there was no requirement that it be sent to staff and outside committees for discussion.

Most curiously, when Louisiana Federation of Teachers Legislative Director Mary Patricia Wray testified on behalf of Hill’s proposal, she was grilled by White as to whether the Federation had a role in writing the rule. That is a question that has never been asked of participants who testify on behalf of issues before the board.

Why are BESE members afraid of the Attorney General?

At last week’s BESE meeting, District 3 Member Lottie Beebe asked for an attorney general’s opinion on whether it is proper for the board to implement a new rule before it has been finally adopted by the board. A majority voted against Beebe’s motion.

Beebe had asked for the opinion to clear up controversy over the complicated process by which BESE rules are supposed to be adopted.

Under law, the first time the board votes on a proposed rule a time period begins during which the public is supposed to have a chance to comment on the rule. Only after the public comment closes is the rule supposed to be finally adopted.

There is ample evidence, though, that BESE often treats that first vote as a final adoption, implementing rules without the public comment.

A member of the attorney general’s staff assigned to assist BESE has said in the past that the board is in compliance with the Administrative Procedures Act. Beebe questioned the accuracy of that statement and asked for an official opinion from the attorney general’s office.

She was supported in her motion only by District 4 Member Walter Lee and by District 8 Member Caroline Hill, who asked, "If we're not doing anything wrong, then what do we have to fear from asking for this opinion to confirm?”

Why doesn’t BESE want a clear rule-making process?

When a BESE member tried to streamline the cumbersome process used to adopt new state education policies, her proposal was delayed by a parliamentary trick. The question is why.

Currently, the public has little understanding of the way new rules are adopted. The first time BESE votes on a proposed rule, several things are supposed to happen before the rule becomes finally adopted.

First, it must be posted in an official state journal. After that, a time period is supposed to open during which the public can request a hearing and comment on the proposed rule. Only after those conditions are met should another vote be taken by BESE to finally adopt the rule.

Problem is, BESE doesn’t make those timelines clear to the public when a rule is proposed. Often, policies are treated as if they have been finally adopted after that first vote by the board.

To remedy the problem, District 3 Member Lottie Beebe proposed a rule making docket which would list current rules, ongoing changes to those rules, and pertinent dates and deadlines for public comment in one place on the BESE website.

Beebe’s proposal was supposed to be heard by BESE’s Administration and Finance Committee. But through a quick parliamentary trick the board moved to "receive" the item without discussion, and the board could not take action.

Beebe complained about the trickery, but it will two months before her plan can be heard again by the board. It’s just one more in string of losses for transparency and openness in the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Why does BESE want to exaggerate deficiencies in public schools?

A rule change that may do nothing more than exaggerate the deficiencies of public schools – without any evidence of accuracy – was approved as a notice of intent by BESE

The rule change proposed by Superintendent John White is a complex adjustment to the School Performance Score index. It was introduced without any statistical analysis of the way it would impact the scores of public schools. Nonetheless, it was approved with only two members, District 3 Member Lottie Beebe and District 8 Member Carolyn Hill, opposed.

The changes include new index points from End of Course tests, recognizing four categories of performance, only two of which merit any index points at all. Although the index still provides for "bonus" points it decreases the amount of bonus points possible by changing the multiplier in the equation.

White noted that the proposal had gone before the "Practitioners" committee, a committee required under the federal waiver.

Some members of the Accountability Commission constitute White’s Practitioners committee. But the full accountability commission, which ought to oversee proposals like this one, has not met in seven months.

Without evidence that the changes do anything more than exaggerate deficiencies of public schools, observers said it is apparent that they will be used to promote the "necessity" of the voucher program.

Why doesn’t BESE believe in accountability for charter schools?

BESE approved a notice of intent for rules that will allow a new kind of charter school to operate virtually free of public scrutiny for up to five years.

As intended by Act 2 of 2012, at least 200 of the Type 1B charters are expected to open. During their five years of initial approval, the only assurance the public will have that they are operating legally and effectively is the documentation that they provide, themselves, to the Department of Education.

These schools will be authorized not by BESE or by lo9cal school boards, but by a new category of charter school authorizers created by the act.

Each Authorizer must commit to opening at least five schools. And up to five authorizers may be approved within the eight economic regions set up by the Workforce Commission.

Each authorizer can skim 2% off the top of the MFP's per pupil amount for "administrative" costs, while the 1B charter schools themselves get to keep the rest. Although the rule largely uses the language of Act 2 word for word, it does little to create accountability or assure quality.

Why is BESE spending $1 million on Teach for America?

The debate over approving a $1 million contract for TFA became emotional at the BESE meeting. Veteran Teachers said they are outraged and dismayed at the level of disrespect for professional, experienced educators.

Several LSU Education majors complained that the TFA grant devalues the certification of teachers, comparing their years of teacher preparation to the fast-track approval given TFA volunteers.

One asked Superintendent John White, "How can you honestly tell me that [a teacher] can be ready for the classroom after five weeks of training?"

White said that teacher shortages and high risk student populations are the reasons for TFA's necessity, but proposed no long term solution for attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers in Louisiana.

Why does BESE prefer private and religious schools over public schools?

The Board approved as a notice of intent changes to the non public school approval process that make it easier for "accredited" schools to be approved. Although the rule recognizes two well known accrediting agencies it also leaves open the option to approve "other" unspecified accrediting agencies as a valid path to quicker, less burdensome approval processes.

Once approved, schools will be eligible to receive public education funds through Gov. Jindal’s voucher program.

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