Impact of state law expanding school choice unclear

Implementation of new legislation still being worked out

For the past decade, on the eve of the start of school, the Louisiana Department of Education has released a list of failing public schools to allow the families in those schools a chance to transfer to a higher-performing public school.

This year, though, the state is no hurry to release the latest list of F-rated schools.

“A preliminary F list will not be released,” Barry Landry, a spokesman for the state agency, told The Advocate in an Aug. 8 email.

The reason? Landry pointed to Act 853, by Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, approved by wide margins this past spring by the Legislature.

Act 853 says a parent living in the attendance zone for a public school rated D or F “may” send their child instead to an A, B or C school anywhere else in Louisiana.

The new law “expands school choice to D and F schools, not just F schools,” Landry said.

Representatives of superintendents and school board members, however, say that’s not what the new law does at all.

They argue state education leaders are “wrongly intertwining” the state law, which encourages school boards to offer more school choice for more students, with a 12-year-old federal school choice law that requires school choice for a much smaller group of students.

Treating Act 853 as an expansion of a much more onerous but limited federal law greatly increases the potential cost and disruption for school districts, representatives for school boards and superintendents say.

“We, as an association, want to make sure (the state’s interpretation of Act 853) doesn’t result in an another unfunded mandate,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Last year, the state gave out letter grades to more than 1,300 public schools. Adding D schools last year would have increased the school choice list from 110 to 372. That’s an increase from 8 percent to 28 percent of all public schools.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which was approved in 2002, requires that states notify families in their lowest-performing schools prior to the start of the school year that they can transfer to schools performing better academically.

Last year’s “preliminary” F-school list was released on Aug. 1, 2013. Letter grades for all public schools were not released until October.

The 2014-15 school year has started already for most public schools in Louisiana.

Landry said how best the law to implement Act 853 is still under discussion.

“The department is working with the superintendents association, the school board association and the bill’s author on guidance for districts,” Landry said.

Nevers said his goal is to give families a way out.

“We have D and F schools that seem to remain D and F schools, and it’s unfair to trap parents in that situation,” he said.

Nevers said he has thought about expanding public school choice since the Legislature expanded private school vouchers statewide in 2012 because vouchers can be exercised only by families that earn no more than 250 percent of the poverty line.

“Those students who are above that poverty line, they’re stuck,” Nevers said. “I feel like we should offer choice no matter what the income level is.”

Richard said the Act 853, while simple in conception, is complex in practice.

“We appreciate what Sen. Nevers is trying to do,” Richard said. “No one wants to be stuck in a school, but there are some very problematic implementation issues.”

Under the law, children can only trade to an A, B or C school if that school has “sufficient capacity” and if doing so wouldn’t violate a court order. That last part excludes nearly half of the state because more than 30 school districts remain under a federal desegregation order.

Richard said school districts need to be careful how they define capacity. He noted that some top schools have selective admission requirements that have to be considered.

The law also requires that the letter grades used come from the “most recent school year,” but there’s a dispute over whether that means the grades released last fall or the next batch of letter grades for all schools the state plans to issue in October.

One big, and potentially costly, question is whether school districts have to provide transportation for children who change schools using Act 853.

The new law says public transportation need not be provided for students crossing district lines if “such transportation will result in additional cost so the school system.” The law, however, is silent on transportation within school districts. Richards said his association’s interpretation of the law is that it doesn’t require that school systems pay for intra-district transfers.

Federal school choice, by contrast, requires school districts to set aside up to 20 percent of their federal money via the Title 1 anti-poverty program to pay for school choice transportation.

Nevers said he thinks school districts should be willing to pay for student transfers under Act 853.

“It is my belief that there should be transportation within the district,” he said. “There is contention about that.”

The School Board Association has issued its own guidance on the legislation. The guidance argues that Act 853 should be read in tandem with another law still on books, R.S. 17:105, first approved in 1960, that describes how school districts can voluntarily allow inter-district transfers and share the per-pupil funding fairly.

“You cannot ignore an existing law because a new law is passed,” Richard said.

In late July, the state Department of Education, which is not mentioned in Act 853 at all, weighed in with its own “draft guidance.” It sent copies to the School Board Association and to the superintendents’ association for review.

Richard said the guidance set off alarms. It paired Act 853 with the federal school choice law, even though the two laws are very different. He described the overall effect as “very prescriptive.”

Richard said that after he and his peers at the Louisiana Association of School Executives raised objections, state Superintendent of Education John White stepped back and they’ve been in discussions about releasing additional guidance.