Lafayette group seeks changes in new education policies

A Lafayette Parish education advocacy group pushed Thursday for legislation that would give local taxpayers control over whether new charter schools can open in a parish and for tweaks to education matters approved by the Legislature in 2012.

The advocacy group Power of Public Education Lafayette held the legislative breakfast to outline specific legislative issues the group hopes to find support for in the session that begins March 10.

The breakfast, opened to the public, was attended by about 60 people and three legislators: Reps. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia; Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette; and Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette.

The group requested legislation that addresses issues with the Common Core State Standards, changes to the state’s school accountability or letter grade system, tougher charter school oversight and local control of charter school application approvals, and changes to teacher evaluations in order to improve teacher retention.

Robideaux said he expects Common Core to dominate discussions during the upcoming session.

“The battle’s going to be very significant, and it’s going to be everything from opting completely out of it to figuring which parts to hang on to … or don’t change anything,” Robideaux said.

Pierre offered his support of changes to the teacher evaluation system, which now is based 50 percent on students’ performance and 50 percent on observations by administrators.

Pierre encouraged the public to research their legislators’ voting records and ask why they supported some of the education issues that groups like PPEL are asking to be changed.

“A large percentage of it is stuck in the courts,” he said.

Landry said he supports public education and public educators; however, neither he nor the other two legislators specifically addressed each of the group’s recommendations. Each invited continued dialogue on the issues as they come up during the session.

PPEL’s formation was sparked by a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decision in October to approve two charter school applications for Lafayette Parish that would have two separate for-profit, charter management companies operating five schools in the next five years. The schools receive state public funding and a share of local tax revenues.

Three of the five charter schools will open this August, and the Lafayette Parish School System projects a “multi-million dollar hole due to the flow of MFP dollars” or public student funding that will follow Lafayette Parish students who enroll in the charter schools, said Kathleen Espinoza of PPEL.

“Our tax dollars will now go to out-of-state management companies that will not provide (bus transportation) for our children,” Espinoza said.

The schools were approved by BESE after they were denied by the Lafayette Parish School Board. Espinoza said her group wants to see a law prevent BESE from overstepping a local board’s decision, such as allowing voters of a parish to vote on charter applications that are rejected by a local board. The group also proposed laws that outline tougher performance audits of charter schools and require the state to fully fund charter schools rejected by local boards.

The charter schools’ ability to enroll students across the state presents a concern for Lafayette’s neighboring parishes because of the potential loss of state funding that would follow students who enroll in the schools, said Vermilion Parish Schools Superintendent Jerome Puyau.

“Our tax dollars can cross boundaries and go into their schools,” Puyau said.

The group will see legislation that targets for-profit operations this session, including regulations of how tax dollars by schools operated by a for-profit company, said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

The group asked for changes to the state’s school letter accountability system, which it described as “seriously flawed,” and asked legislators to support greater transparency in how performance scores are calculated and making that data available to the public.

The scores don’t paint a true picture of a school’s performance and don’t take into account a school’s special populations, such as high percentages of students living in poverty or who have special learning needs, said Noel Hammatt, a former East Baton Rouge School Board member.

In Louisiana, there’s also a strong correlation between a school’s letter grade and the number of students who qualify for free meals, an indicator of poverty, Hammatt said.

“As poverty in a school goes up, scores go down,” he told the crowd.

While the accountability system may be flawed, it serves its purpose to help inform parents and the public of a school’s progress and helps schools pinpoint areas where students may need more help, said Margaret Trahan, executive director of the United Way of Acadiana.

What gets measured gets attention, she added.

She disagreed with the idea that the accountability system unfairly characterizes schools — particularly those with a high percentage of poor students.

“I’ve seen too many examples of dynamic principals and teachers who are in high-poverty schools that are high performing,” she said.