Union-led coalition warns against Jindal agenda, while business group says unions fear transparency

Letter grades that show a sizable percentage of Louisiana public schools are either failing or under-performing continue to generate controversy. Officials representing a coalition of teachers unions, superintendents and school board associations claim that they were set up to advance a political agenda built around the expansion of charter schools and privatization initiatives.

While many of the schools in the New Orleans state-run Recovery School District (RSD) and the local Orleans Parish School Board showed measurable improvement, a majority received a letter grade of D or F when the Louisiana Department of Education released the letter grades for the first time earlier this week. Statewide, 44 percent of Louisiana schools received D’s or F’s. Even so, there were visible signs of improvement.

If the current letter grade system had been in place back in 2007, 55 percent of Louisiana schools would have earned D’s or F’s.  The means the number schools that failed to achieve at least a C grade fell by 20 percent from just a few years ago. Moreover, the number of schools that received a grade of B or A almost doubled from 14.9 percent in 2007 to 28.4 percent in 2011.

“We see the letter grade system as an attempt to make more of the schools to appear as failing schools so the [Jindal] administration can make the case for more companies to come in and open charter schools,” said Jack Loup, founder of the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education. “We are already dealing with cutbacks in funds and the school boards are being asked to do more with less. There is an effort here to make the school system look bad to advance a political agenda.”

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), which formally approved the new letter grade program last December, set up a 200-point scale based on student test scores for the individual schools. A school is considered top performing if it reaches a mark of 120 or higher, while schools that fall below 65 are considered failing. District Performance Scores and State Performance Scores intermix standardized test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates and dropout figures.

In June, Rep. Jonathan Perry (R-Abbeville), with the support of the teachers unions, introduced a bill to delay the new system, but the Senate Education Committee voted it down in a 5-4 vote. Stafford Palmieri, an education policy adviser to Gov. Jindal, described Perry’s bill as “an attack on accountability.”

The letter grade system sharply divides candidates competing for contested BESE seats in the Oct. 22 elections. Those in favor of the letter grades view them as a distinct improvement over the “star system” that had been in place, which they described as “vague” and “ambiguous.”

“The idea here is to provide clear communication,” said Holly Boffy, who was named as the 2010 state teacher of the year. “The letter grades will help us to understand where we are failing and how we can better deliver resources to the schools that need it most. This is a system everyone can understand. If we are assigning letter grades to students, then why not to schools?”

Boffy is looking to unseat incumbent Dale Bayard in the 7th district, who has been endorsed by the coalition.

“The letter grade system will be eye opening for the public, we need to see where our schools fall in comparison to each other and how we look nationally,” Boffy added. “The star system was always a bit vague and didn’t tell us very much.”

All eight of the elected seats on the 11 member Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) are being contested on Oct. 22. Only one incumbent, Linda Johnson, has announced that she is not seeking re-election. Thus far, incumbent Walter Lee is running unopposed in District 4 with the endorsement of Gov. Jindal.

Gov. Jindal has weighed in favor of several BESE candidates. In addition to Boffy, he has endorsed incumbent Jim Garvey in District 1, incumbent Glenny Lee Buquet in District 3, incumbent Chas Roemer in District 6 and newcomer Jay Guillot in District 5.

The Tea Party of Lafayette has also interjected itself into the race endorsing Boffy.

Gov. Jindal and former Superintendent Paul Pastorek frequently secured 6-5 votes on BESE to advance school choice initiatives and other policy changes that attracted opposition from union officials.  The governor would need eight votes on BESE to gain approval for John White, the RSD superintendent, as his preferred successor to Pastorek.

With the exception of BESE member Johnson who is running unopposed, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) has issued endorsements to all of the candidates backed by Gov. Jindal.

Kira Orange Jones, who is challenging incumbent Louella Givens has also been endorsed by LABI and strongly favors the letter system, but said it should not be seen as a panacea.

“I think this does foster transparency and transmits a clear message to parents,” she said.

“But we need to revisit the issue of student growth, because that is not being measured and I’m concerned that a lot of remarkable stories are getting lost. We have to remember where students started from and how far they have come. But I do see the letter grades as a helpful change. The star system to me was a little too ambiguous.”

Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), a coalition member, has misgivings about the letter grading system because it omits key pieces of information.

“I think the simplicity is the danger of it,” he said. “What happens when you have an A school? Does that mean the school is perfect? When we are talking about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of teachers and administrators I think that’s ill-defined. The real concern we should have is with resources and we have to ask if we are equating the resources to all of our schools in a fair and equitable way.”

Walker-Jones also said that the assignment of an “F” grade to a school can be misleading and drive people away from a community that may have valuable assets.
“There could be unintended consequences here,” he added.

Les Landon, director of public relations for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, has his own misgivings.

“The letter grades are not helpful,” he said. “If you assign one letter grade to a school that implies that same sort of rigor that goes into grading a student in all the different subjects they are taking, but it does not include the same kind of information. So I don’t see this letter grade system has necessarily being so easy to understand and discern.”

Guillot, who is challenging incumbent Keith Guice in District 5, disagrees and views the letter grade system as a promising new start.

“This is not about being punitive, it is about establishing a baseline and putting down markers that can serve as the basis for improvement,” Guillot said. “I’m sure there is room for improvement in how we make these measurements, but this does bring transparency and openness to our education system. All of the stakeholders – parents, teachers and administrators – will see this information put out there in a way that it hasn’t before and I see that as a step forward.”

The upshot of having candidates in the race who are sharply divided over policy is that it has helped to generate more interest in the BESE elections, which are typically overlooked, Guillot observed.

In a letter addressed to Vermillion Parish School Board employees that took aim at Gov. Jindal and his school choice initiatives, Superintendent Randy Schexnayder expressed his support for union-backed BESE candidates. He wrote: “Please be on guard and forewarn your family and friends against falsehoods and half truths which will be coming out in the near future against any of these candidates through paid advertisements, phone surveys and in newspaper articles. While it is hard to believe, the truth is… these ‘special interest’ groups will use the lowest level of gutter politics in order to affect this election to suite their own policy motives.”

A new political action committee (PAC) called The Alliance for Better Classrooms or ABC PAC has entered the fray as a counterbalance to the coalition. ABC will spend at least $1 million on “reform candidates” who support its policy objectives, Lane Grigsby, a Baton Rouge contractor who helped form the PAC, has told members of the press.

Brigitte Nieland, vice-president, communications director, of the Education and Workforce Development Council for LABI, is unmoved by the arguments from union officials.

“Sometimes the truth hurts and this is turning into a public relations nightmare for them,” she said. “For them to say that a clear, understandable grading system is not valuable in comparison to what we had before is just not convincing. Only in public education can taxpayer funded employees come out and talk about how citizens and taxpayers don’t deserve transparency. This is the dividing line; this is the coalition versus taxpayers and this is about hiding the truth from taxpayers.”

LABI announced two additional endorsements this week: Russell Armstrong and Carolyn Hill, who are both seeking the open seat in District 8. Jim Guillory is the other candidate.

The Pelican Institute also sought interviews with the coalition backed candidates including BESE incumbent members Guice, Bayard and Givens, but did not receive a response.

Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at kmooney@pelicanpolicy.org and followed on Twitter.