Education website criticized

The state Department of Education’s new website sparked criticism Tuesday from a wide range of groups that rarely agree on public school issues.

The revamped version, which was touted as a way to aid parents and teachers, came under fire mostly for what critics called a lack of easily obtainable and current data on teachers, enrollment, demographics and other issues.

“A lot of people are complaining that it is difficult to find the data,” said Brigitte Nieland, who tracks public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which often backs public education overhaul initiatives.

Other critics included officials of the Council for a Better Louisiana, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system and the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University.

Lottie Beebe, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said she conveyed her concerns to state Superintendent of Education John White, who she has clashed with frequently.

“For the record, I did personally tell superintendent White that I was extremely disappointed in the juvenile appearance of the LDOE website,” Beebe said in an email response to questions.

White, who has been on the job for just over one year, said the overhaul was a response to complaints from parents and teachers about problems with the previous version, and that the changes have been well-received by both groups.

“We cleaned up a mess,” White said.

“Anytime you clean up a mess you throw things away,” White said. “If there are things that people don’t see that are valuable they should just tell us and we will put it back up there.”

White added, “We don’t run the website for special interest groups. We run it for parents and teachers.”

The issue is pertinent because, unlike some websites in state government, the department’s has a huge audience.

About 712,000 public school students attend the state’s roughly 1,300 schools.

Another 55,000 or so teach the classes.

The new website, which was announced on Jan. 22, gets 5,767 hits per day, said Barry Landry, a spokesman for the department. Landry said the redesign was done in-house and required no additional costs.

The new website features categories on academics, teaching, assessment, accountability, funding, early childhood education, schools and courses.

“I do wish they would make it a little more user friendly,” said Stephanie Desselle, who follows public school issues for the Council for a Better Louisiana, which often backs public school overhaul initiatives pushed by White.

“It seems like they need to put more information on it,” Desselle said. “One of the things is finding up-to-date information.”

Mary Lee Murphy, director of development and communications for the Cowen Institute, said some school data is no longer available on the new website, including reports on enrollment, demographics, teacher experience/education levels, pay, charter school budgets, district revenues, expenditures and college enrollment.

The Cowen Institute calls itself a think tank that offers solutions to public school problems in New Orleans and elsewhere.

Lizabeth Frischhertz, chief officer for accountability, assessment and evaluation for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, said the overhaul has caused problems for her district’s website, which includes links to the state department on test policies and other issues.

“To find current data is really a struggle,” Frischhertz said.

However, she said department officials have been responsive to requests to restore old information, including interactive practice tests.

Landry, the education department spokesman, released a prepared statement by Covington High School teacher Richard Lynch, who praised the new website.

“It is organized into categories that make sense, and most information I need I can access within a few clicks,” Lynch said in his statement.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and a frequent White critic, said the new website appears to reflect a more ideologically driven state department of education, including the idea that school choice is preferable to traditional public education.

Even the use of the term “Louisiana Believes” on the website — White’s monicker for a wide range of public school improvement goals — represents a bothersome, unilateral change, Monaghan said.

The website’s URL has been changed to http://www.louisiana
believes.com.