Education laws topic of forum

— Louisiana legislators need to rework the education accountability and choice laws that siphon resources from public schools, punish teachers based on faulty measuring tools and disproportionately affect at-risk students, a panel of Tangipahoa Parish educators and elected officials said.

“We had an opportunity to transform the traditional education system, and we missed it,” state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Lottie Beebe said during a Tuesday evening forum sponsored by private nonprofit Louisiana Progress and The Daily Star.

Education reforms have been implemented too quickly, Beebe said, and will siphon money from the traditional education system rather than help it improve.

Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, said that after a state court found the use of Minimum Foundation Program funds to support the voucher program unconstitutional, the state likely will seek alternative ways to fund vouchers.

That could happen either through a separate, line-item appropriation or an effort to scale back the MFP, which has remained flat for four years already, and reroute some of that money to vouchers, Edwards said.

“Is that what they’re going to do? I hope not,” he said.

Teacher Karen Bell said the reforms have limited not only funding but also flexibility, dictating which skills students must be taught, how and on what timetable, with no regard for each student’s abilities.

Theresa Hamilton, chief academic officer for the Tangipahoa Parish school system, said it takes a different teacher skill set, as well as smaller classes, to reach at-risk students, Hamilton said. More than 75 percent of the parish’s students are considered at-risk, being eligible for free or reduced price lunches, she said.

However, the state’s new system for evaluating teachers has contributed to the growing number of educators retiring, Hamilton said. Tangipahoa Parish has lost 75 teachers since August, she said, and the district’s ability to retain teachers has weakened.

The evaluation system’s use of students’ standardized test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness misconstrues the value of testing, said James Kirylo, professor at Southeastern Louisiana University.

“The purpose of assessment is to improve teaching and learning,” Kirylo said. “There is very little evidence that standardized tests do that.”

The heavy reliance on test scores for measuring teacher effectiveness and district performance has narrowed and “dumbed down” the curriculum and made teaching far more rigid, Kirylo said.

“It teaches our children that school is about passing a test, rather than falling in love with learning,” he said. “Students don’t go to school to perform. They go to school to learn.”

The district’s principals also feel the pressure of meeting additional state mandates on a tighter budget, said Ashley Walker, principal at Westside Middle School in Amite.

Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, said it is imperative that the Legislature stays involved in the conversation.

“It would be a failure of leadership to enact reforms and then walk away and be unwilling to evaluate the effects of what we’ve done,” Broadwater said.