School revamp debated

A former federal education official and the president of Louisiana’s top school board Thursday clashed over vouchers, charter schools and the need for changes in public schools.

Diane Ravitch, who held education posts under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, opened an hour-long podium by denouncing vouchers, charter schools and linking teacher evaluations to the growth of student achievement — all new policies here.

“Louisiana is on the wrong track.” Ravitch said. “Louisiana is on the road to dismantling the public school system.”

But Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said vouchers and charter schools offer families needed options in a public school system where roughly one of three students — about 235,000 — perform below grade level.

“We know what we were doing was not working,” Roemer said of public school operations.

Roemer and Ravitch made their comments during a forum sponsored by Leaders with Vision, which attracted an audience of schools officials, representatives of at least three teacher groups and current and former educators.

Ravitch, a critic of what she calls misguided public school reforms, served as an adviser on national testing standards in the Clinton administration.

She was assistant secretary of education during the elder Bush’s administration but said she later had a change of heart about how to address public school problems.

Roemer has been on BESE for five years and became head of the 11-member panel in January.

Ravitch said countries such as Finland and Japan with the top-performing students in the world do so without vouchers, which allow students to attend private and parochial schools with state aid, and without charter schools.

They are supposed to offer innovative alternatives to traditional public schools.

She said half of the F-rated schools in Florida are charter schools and that the longest-running voucher system in the nation, which is Milwaukee, has failed to produce big gains while public schools have suffered.

Ravitch heaped scorn on plans to link teacher evaluations in part to the growth of student achievement.

“I can’t think of a better term,” she said. “It is junk science.”

Roemer said major problems in the state’s public school system require multiple options for families, including vouchers that are used by nearly 5,000 students.

“Do you want to go into their dining room and tell them they shouldn’t have a choice?” he asked.

Roemer said the state needs to make public schools a popular choice and the way to do that is by requiring them to examine their practices.

“It’s called competition,” he said.

“It’s different for every parent,” Roemer said. “It’s different for every family.”

Louisiana’s expanded voucher law, which became law last year, was struck down Nov. 30 by 19th Judicial District Court Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge.

An appeal at the state Supreme Court is set for Tuesday.