‘Ugly truth’ has big impact
By Will Sentell
June 15, 2013
It was just a 19-line bill that won approval in the Louisiana Legislature two years ago.
Yet rarely has a law that sparked so little attention helped spawn such sweeping changes in public schools, and likely will do so for the foreseeable future.
The measure, Act 718, required the state to assign traditional letter grades to its 1,300 public schools.
The idea behind it was simple: put a label on schools that parents and children could understand.
The old system used stars, which caused confusion.
“It was just not user-friendly,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Conard Appel, R-Metairie, one of the co-sponsors of the law.
Gov. Bobby Jindal proposed the plan on April 18, 2010.
The state Senate passed it 34-0. The House did so 80-8.
The grades would be linked to what the state calls annual school performance scores, which are based mostly on how students fare on key tests.
On Oct. 5, 2011, the state Department of Education announced that 44 percent of public schools were rated D and F.
And that single number, from a little-known law, became one of the driving points for this year’s sweeping overhaul of public schools.
It was used to argue for setting up a statewide voucher system as another option for students to escape failing public schools.
It was used to promote a bill that will make it harder for teachers to earn and retain a form of job protection called tenure.
And it was used to pave the way for more charter schools, allowing students to pursue high school diplomas through nontraditional means and allowing parents new ways to force changes in failing schools.
Fair or not, the 44 percent label became the symbol of a public education system that has ranked near the bottom of the nation for decades.
It is one thing for Education Week magazine to give Louisiana an F for student achievement, which it did in 2011.
Another national education report ranked the state 47th in student achievement.
However, such rankings can seem intangible and distant.
In the past, parents and students could say the problem was with other schools, not their own.
Yet suddenly seeing individual schools ranked D and F sparked surprise, angst and controversy that continues today.
Penny Dastugue, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, called the grades “the ugly truth.”
Appel said for some families it was a sudden wake-up call.
“All these years they were told their kids were in a good school, and for the first time maybe they weren’t,” he said.
Ironically, most of the controversy started well after the Legislature passed the bill in 2010.
Superintendents and others saw that assigning traditional letter grades to public schools could spark an explosive reaction.
Notes went home to parents to prepare for the news when the first round of grades were about to be released.
Teacher unions and other opponents called the grading system unfair, superficial and an attack on public education.
State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey, D-Baton Rouge, who voted for the bill in 2010, sponsored a bill last year to delay issuance of the grades.
It went nowhere.
Educators fought over where to set the bar for awarding an A, B, C, D and F.
Louisiana’s top school board approved a plan, with surprising rigor, on Dec. 9, 2010.
A new round of school grades is due in early October.
Some state education officials say the new policy, and the desire to avoid low marks, has provided a big incentive for school improvements.
The ranks of D and F schools may well drop.
However, tougher state standards that begin this year also mean that the list of schools facing state sanctions will rise by 33 percent.
What the whole episode shows is that high-impact laws can emerge from the Legislature with little fanfare.
Some proposals spark news conferences, heated debates and 50-page bills.
Others barely need two pages to leave a big impact.
Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.