Louisiana excluding magnet schools from national awards

Louisiana is excluding magnet schools from the chance to win a prestigious national award in favor of “nonselective” schools, a move that the head of the nation’s largest organization of magnet schools says is absurd.

“It makes you wonder what ulterior motives there may be or what misinformation they may have about magnet schools,” Scott Thomas, executive director of Magnet Schools of America, said in an interview.

Thomas said he is not aware of any other state in the country that won’t let magnet schools compete for national Blue Ribbon School of Excellence honors.

At least 29 of the 145 Louisiana schools that have won Blue Ribbons since the federal government began awarding them in 1982 have been magnet schools. Five, including two-time winner Baton Rouge Magnet High School, are part of the East Baton Rouge Parish public school system. The school system has nine Blue Ribbon schools in all.

The Advocate has asked the Louisiana Department of Education repeatedly, dating back to March 19, for an explanation of its decision to exclude magnet schools.

Barry Landry, spokesman for the state agency, released a statement on Saturday saying, “This year the state chose to focus on non-selective schools and nominated the five schools meeting the criteria, including one in East Baton Rouge Parish. We look forward to nominating both selective and non-selective schools in future years.”

Asked specifically if magnet schools will be nominated in the future, Landry responded: “We will evaluate the criteria and make decisions for future years to nominate not just the best but also the most Louisiana schools possible.”

Magnet schools began as a desegregation tool, using specialized programs to attract a diverse set of students. Many, but not all, have selective admission criteria.

Other selective public schools in Louisiana include a small number of charter schools, particularly in New Orleans, and university lab schools such as LSU and Southern lab schools.

Private schools in Louisiana, many of which are highly selective, remain eligible for Blue Ribbon School of Excellence honors but go through a different nomination process via the Council for American Private Education. More than a third of the past winners in Louisiana are private schools.

Blue Ribbon School of Excellence honors go to schools that either are among the nation’s top performers or have shown significant progress in improving student achievement.

Landry said Louisiana opted to take advantage of a new federal rule this year that allows states to set their own criteria for which schools to nominate.

The new criteria, titled “Louisiana’s Plan for Nominating Blue Ribbon Schools,” was included in a stack of documents the state released earlier this month to state Reps. Pat Smith and Alfred C. Williams, both D-Baton Rouge, and former School Board members in Baton Rouge.

The lawmakers asked for the public records after the agency failed to nominate Parkview Elementary for a Blue Ribbon, even though it met the new criteria. Parkview was belatedly nominated March 13, the same day The Advocate began asking state officials questions about why Parkview hadn’t been nominated. Williams is asking the state inspector general to investigate.

The new criteria list 11 “steps” schools have to pass to be nominated. No. 11 specifies that the school must “have not been designated as a magnet school.”

The Advocate alerted Thomas with Magnet Schools of America about the exclusion on Wednesday. Thomas said he suspects the move is designed to promote charter schools at the expense of other schools.

He said “for-profit charters are gaining strength” and that it appears to be a strategic move to devalue magnets, which are the primary competition to the charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools run by private organizations via a contract, or charter. Only two charter schools have won Blue Ribbons in Louisiana and none was nominated for the honor this year.

Thomas sent an email Friday complaining to Aba Kumi, director of the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program for the U.S. Department of Education.

Her office accepted the new criteria in mid-February.

Kumi responded in an email that states can set their own nomination criteria; all her office does is make sure the nominated schools are eligible. The federal government gives Louisiana slots for six public schools. This year, the state nominated only five schools.

Thomas said he’s sent follow-up emails to Kumi and with the Louisiana Department of Education seeking answers.

“I am not satisfied with the response,” Thomas said. “It does not explain why they approved the regulations.”