Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Title of Education Legislation "Misleading"

The title of the legislation proposed by HB 1368 is: RED TAPE REDUCTION AND LOCAL EMPOWERMENT WAIVER PROGRAM.

This title could be misleading because it will not necessarily reduce red tape for local school systems and it certainly does nothing to empower any local school system, while it greatly empowers the State Department of Education to dictate various actions to local school systems.

The legislation allows local school systems to apply for a waiver of various state laws and BESE regulations such as class size maximums, pupil-teacher ratios, and instructional time requirements provided that the school system submits a plan for improvement of academic achievement of the students of any schools exempted from such laws or regulations. The law actually seems to be aimed at providing an alternative to state takeover of low performing schools. It basically would allow a local school board to maintain authority over its low performing schools if the local superintendent agrees to make state mandated changes to such low performing schools. To avoid state takeover the school system must choose one of the following reorganization plans for any of its low performing schools it wishes to have exempted from state takeover:

1. Turnaround: Replace the principal and a majority of the teachers and give more power over the budget and teacher selection to the new principal

2. Restart: Turn over the school to a charter or outside management organization

3. School closure: Close the school and send the students to another school that is a high performing school within the district

4. Transformation: Replace the principal and implement various changes to the management of the school. This option can be used for no more than 50% of the schools receiving waivers for that school district.

The law would also require that any school that fails to improve according to state mandates over a period of time regardless of any waivers, would eventually have to be converted into a charter school. This legislation would establish charter conversion as the final solution for any school that is judged to be chronically low performing. What would happen if such a charter school still failed to perform satisfactorily? The law would mandate that it be turned over to another charter organization. In this legislation we finally have an answer to the question: Who would take over a takeover school if it still failed? Answer: It would simply be another takeover organization. It would never go back to the local school board.

How will this law actually affect local school systems?
The law is obviously intended to apply only to school systems that have “low performing” schools as defined by BESE. This year it would focus on schools that have been assigned a School Performance Score of 65 or below and have not met state mandated improvement goals. Next year the minimum score will go to 75. At least 20 of Louisiana's local systems would not be affected at all because none of their schools have SPS scores below 75. Here's how it will affect some systems:

For example, if we use the School Performance Score of 75 to determine which schools could possibly be affected, a large school system such as East Baton Rouge Parish could have approximately 40 of its 80 schools affected. That means that if school scores do not improve sufficiently, the school system would have almost half its schools subject to state takeover. If it wants to retain some control of its schools, EBR would have to apply for the waiver described in this legislation.

If the school system does not want to close any of these schools it would have to turn some over to charter organizations or fire at least half the faculty or at least fire the principals and find replacements and then follow the dictates of the State Department of Education as to how to run these schools. This certainly does not look like red tape reduction and local empowerment!

With the passage of this law, the state will be mandating to local school systems what may be considered draconian measures in all schools classified by the state to be low performing. And as we have seen, the definition of low performing can be changed at any time by BESE. What could be some of the other effects of such new rules?

A school system with several low performing schools could face the following problems:

1. Some principals would have to be fired or transferred even if the local superintendent believes he/she is doing the best job possible under the circumstances. The state does not consider extenuating circumstances such as high poverty communities served by a particular school. It is assumed that all schools can and should perform at a certain level. If it does not do so, the principal and teachers must be blamed.

2. If none of the low performing schools are to be turned over to Charter Management Organizations, and if closing schools is not feasible, then at least half of the low performing schools would be required to replace at least half of their teachers. Would the local school system be forced to fire these teachers, or would it switch them with teachers from higher performing schools? How would teacher and administrator morale be affected by such mass firings or transfers?

3. A few of the smaller school systems serving high poverty districts may be forced to turn over almost half of their schools to Charter Management Organizations or try to implement massive teacher firings and replacement or just turn over such schools to the state.

If both this legislation and HB 1033 (the law mandating teacher evaluations based on student test scores) passes, Louisiana can expect major disruption in the operation of many local school systems. Sadly, based on the performance of schools in the Recovery District, there is no reason to believe that such disruptions in the lives of many dedicated educators will actually bring improvements in the education of our students. There is no evidence that taking schools away from democratically elected school boards and handing them over to outside charter management organizations will improve instruction. In my 44 years of involvement with public education, I have never before seen such a drastic experiment with the lives of thousands of students and educators.