State directive: School districts should bus students from F, D schools

The Louisiana Department of Education is calling upon school districts to pay for bus transportation not only for children transferring out of F-ranked schools, but also for the many more students whose parents want to move their children out of the state’s D-ranked schools.

This directive, issued Tuesday in a weekly department newsletter, also instructs school districts to not wait until the state promulgates new letter grades for public schools. Since 2003, the state has published annually a list of schools obliged to provide school choice prior to the start of the new school year, but has let the 2014-15 school year get under way without doing so.

Instead, the state department wants school districts to reuse year-old school letter grades from the 2012-13 school year, to determine which schools have to offer choice. That list includes 110 F and 262 D schools.

Adding last year’s D schools would increase from the proportion of Louisiana public schools that might have to offer school choice from 8 percent to 28 percent.

Parents interested in transferring to higher performing schools may have to wait, though.

Representatives of organizations representing school board members and school superintendents dispute the state Department of Education’s interpretation of the applicable law and are forging ahead with their own interpretations.

The Louisiana School Board Association on Thursday sent to school districts the template for a school choice policy, as well as a more detailed “policy alert” prepared by suburban Chicago-based Foresight Consulting, which advises many school boards in Louisiana on school law.

Scott Richard, LSBA’s executive director, said the state Department of Education’s directive issued Thursday is merely a “suggestion” and that school districts need to develop their own school choice policies that meet their own needs. He said he expects school district to pass such policies in the weeks to come and that they may vary widely.

The complicating factor is a new state law, Act 853, by Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, that 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 law, however, is short on specifics, leaving many of the details up to individual school districts who are encouraged to work “collaboratively and cooperatively” to sort things out.

The state Department of Education, which is not mentioned at all in Act 853, is weighing in anyway.

The state agency has long overseen the school choice that applies to children in F schools, originally called “academically unacceptable” schools. In its directive sent Tuesday, as well in an Aug. 5 newsletter, the department argued that Act 853 “expands public school choice for children enrolled in a school with a letter grade of D or F.”

Doris Voitier, superintendent of St. Bernard Parish schools and president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, objects to the state’s attempt to join the new state law with preexisting school choice for F schools.

“This is a state law and it has nothing to do with the federal directive for F and failing schools,” Voitier said. “The two should be kept separate.”

The state argues that Act 853 requires districts to pay for transportation within their borders similarly to how school choice law for F schools requires school districts to pay for such transportation.

Act 853, however, is silent on this question; Richard and Voitier say that silence means the decision to pay for transportation is left up to individual school districts.

When it comes to students crossing district lines, Act 853 says that public transportation need not be provided if “such transportation will result in additional cost to the school system.”

Also unclear is whether the state can ask schools to use old school letter grades.

Act 853 says the law applies to schools that received a D or F “for the most recent school year.” If the “most recent school year” is 2013-14, then the D and F schools won’t be known until the state releases its next round of school letter grades for all schools later this year.

School leaders are resisting, however, using old school scores on more practical grounds. Schools that were F or D schools in years may have improved and not have to offer choice any longer, while schools that were higher rated may have slipped.

Using last year’s list, only one school in East Baton Rouge Parish, Claiborne Elementary, would have to offer choice; 19 other F schools in the parish are exempt for a variety of reasons. Last year, only 44 of about 750 eligible Claiborne students transferred elsewhere and 10 of those later returned to Claiborne.

Adding D schools would expand choice to up to 32 more schools in the parish, 26 of them part of the parish school system.

From 2003 to 2011, school choice for the lowest performing schools was required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. States, though, had to generate a fresh annual lists of such schools and was not barred from using old lists.

In 2012, Louisiana was one of the many states that successfully earned an two-year NCLB waiver.

One of the waived provisions was school choice. Louisiana, however, has elected to continue requiring school choice for its F-rated schools, under slightly different rules, as a matter of state, not federal policy.

Louisiana’s NCLB waiver expired in May with the end of the 2013-14 school year, but Dorie Nolt, press secretary for Arne Duncan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said Louisiana waiver is still in effect because the state has repeatedly signaled to her office that it intends to seek an extension of the waiver for the 2014-15 school year.

Out of 35 states that had waivers expiring this summer, 18 have successfully requested and obtained a one-year extension, while 14 more are awaiting a decision. Louisiana is one of just three states that have yet to formally request an extension, Nolt said.

Barry Landry, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Education, would not say why the state has yet to seek a waiver extension.

“We are considering our options,” Landry said.

If the state fails to get an extension or obtain a new waiver, it will revert to the old federal NCLB rules, including those for school choice.