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Dumb & Dumber Louisiana's Senators Choose Partisanship Over Common Sense Education Policies

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Last week, the U.S. Senate voted to repeal federal regulations that would require states to assess the effectiveness of their teacher training programs and hold schools and districts accountable for student performance. Why? Because Republicans in Congress appear hellbent on dismantling the Obama Administration’s legislative and regulatory legacies without regard for the consequences of their actions.

Senator Bill Cassidy and Senator John Kennedy.

Inexplicably, Louisiana’s two Republican Senators, Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, have jumped on this bandwagon, at least when it comes to education policy. First, they joined 57 of their Senate colleagues in rolling back an Obama Administration rule tied to the Higher Education Act that would have required states to annually evaluate and rate their teacher training programs.

I assume Cassidy and Kennedy didn’t realize that Louisiana has already been doing this more or less for the past decade. Every year, the Louisiana Board of Regents produces a Teacher Preparation Data Dashboard which provides policymakers and the public with data on the effectiveness of state-approved teacher training programs.

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An example of the data dashboard for LSU's teacher training program in 2014.

In fact, this data helped inform the state’s recent decision to overhaul its teacher training requirements after it became clear that many programs were leaving their graduates unprepared for the classroom. Beginning in 2018, students entering education programs at state colleges and universities will complete a year-long residency in the classroom of a mentor teacher and will complete a new competency-based course-of-study that focuses on the skills and knowledge they need to successfully transition to teaching.

But the need to overhaul teacher preparation is not unique to Louisiana – far too many education schools across the country are churning out aspiring teachers who lack the skills they need to be successful. Of course, state policymakers can’t address the problem without first identifying the strengths and weaknesses of their existing programs, but few states have taken it upon themselves to establish a formal system for evaluating them.

In 2013, the National Council on Teacher Quality released a sobering report on the state of teacher training programs.

The rule that Cassidy and Kennedy voted to repeal last week was the Obama Administration’s attempt to nudge states in that direction by tying teacher prep evaluations to funding: Only training programs that were judged to be effective would be eligible for federal student aid and certain grants. Although Republicans derided the rule as “bureaucratic micromanagement,” “fiscally responsible” seems like a more apt description – that is, unless our esteemed senators can explain why taxpayer dollars should be used to prop-up ineffective teacher training programs.

Title I: No Strings Attached

If the repeal of the teacher prep rule wasn’t bad enough, Cassidy and Kennedy also joined their fellow Republican senators in voting to repeal accountability regulations tied to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

ESSA, the long-awaited update to the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, dictates how federal K-12 education funding is allocated through its various title programs, including the enormous Title I program ($14.4 billion in 2015), which provides funding to schools and districts that serve low-income families. The law also provides an overview of what states must do in order to receive these funds, such annual testing and reporting requirements, a process for addressing persistently failing schools, etc.

Graphic from the Education Trust

The ESSA regulations that the Senate voted to repeal last week fleshed out the nuts-and-bolts guidelines that states must follow in order to comply with the broad mandates of the law. They were specifically crafted to ensure that states are holding schools and districts accountable for the performance of students from low-income families, English-language learners, and students with special needs.

Nevertheless, Republicans in the Senate called the rules a “prime example of the executive overreach” and voted to scrap the them on a vote of 50-49. Ironically, Cassidy and Kennedy joined that bare majority, in spite of the fact that they hail from a state that is recognized as a leader for its strong accountability policies.

Louisiana implemented statewide standardized testing and annual school and district grading well before the advent of No Child Left Behind. And over the past 15 years, education officials have used that data to drive improvements in public education, intervene in failing schools (see: the Recovery School District), and incrementally raise performance standards.

Louisiana’s graduation rate and TOPS eligibility numbers have steadily risen over the years.

The good news is that Louisiana’s unflinching commitment to accountability has raised academic achievement. The bad news is that there are 49 other states whose commitment to high standards varies and no doubt many will opt for the path of least resistance as they craft their ESSA accountability plans. As a result, more vulnerable students will lose, more failing schools will remain failing, and taxpayers will have far less to show for their investment.

Republicans, who control both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade, are eager to show the country that they’re taking things in a new direction, but repealing common sense education regulations simply because they were crafted by the Obama Administration doesn’t make sense. Moreover, Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy’s votes to repeal these measures make even less sense, since Louisiana has benefitted from the very policies they chose to reject.

The next time an education bill comes up for a vote, let’s hope Cassidy and Kennedy slow down and draw on the lessons from Louisiana’s reforms.

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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Russell Poulin

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when they step down, @UVaCurry steps up! #curryproud

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Focus on Students

Congrats to Louisiana for setting accountability standards. Why in the world would we want the federal government involved?

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LaLege

A Victory For Pettiness Over Progress Why Did The Governor Veto A Common Sense Education Bill?

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On Friday, Louisiana lawmakers voted to cancel a veto session to override Governor John Bel Edwards’ rejection of a number of bills passed by the legislature during this year’s regular session. The move was expected even though many Republican legislators accused the Governor of using his veto power to punish lawmakers who have consistently opposed his agenda.

Although the Governor’s line-item vetoes of construction projects in the state budget aroused the most controversy, the press largely overlooked his rejection of House Bill 568, a proposal from State Rep. Nancy Landry which would have revised the state’s student data privacy law.

Some background on H.B. 568

The story of House Bill 568 has its origins in a conversation I had last spring with a friend who works at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. For years, CREDO has produced highly regarded studies on the effectiveness of the state’s charter schools using data provided by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE). However, in 2015, LDOE officials informed CREDO they could no longer provide access to that information due to changes in the state’s student data privacy law, passed by the legislature in 2014, which prohibited the department from sharing data with research institutions outside of Louisiana.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford has published highly regarded studies on the effectiveness of charter schools.

Without access to student performance data, CREDO’s research on Louisiana’s charter schools would grind to a halt and education policymakers would lose an objective, in-depth assessment of the health of the state’s charter sector. Moreover, the refusal to share data with out-of-state researchers would mean that Louisiana’s influence on the national education policy debate would be significantly diminished.

Seeking to avoid that outcome, my friend at CREDO reached out to see if I had any ideas on how they should proceed. I connected her with State Rep. Nancy Landry, who serves as chair of the House Education Committee, to explain the situation and see if she could help. Their subsequent discussions resulted in H.B. 568, which Landry filed during this year’s regular legislative session.

State Rep. Nancy Landry (R – Lafayette), is chair of House Education Committee and has clashed with the Governor over education policy.

The bill sought to carve out an exception to the overly broad changes lawmakers made in 2014 by allowing data to be shared (in accordance with standard data privacy protection procedures) with researchers at any college or university in the United States accredited and recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. In short, H.B. 568 was limited in scope and non-controversial, as evidenced by the fact that it passed by large margins in both the House (95-3) and Senate (27-7).


Read more about how researchers use student data:

Student data privacy and education research must be balanced

Last week, the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on data privacy protections for students. Michael Hansen highlights the gravity of the debate around how Congress will update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) for use in the modern age where big data is king.


So what’s with the veto?

Which brings us to the question of why Governor Edwards vetoed the legislation, especially when it had broad bipartisan support. Let’s start with the “official” rationale provided by the Governor in his veto message:

“The legislation requires LDOE to enter into a memorandum of understanding in which the person conducting such academic research agrees to be civilly liable for any fine imposed as a violation of authorized uses of the student information. Under current law, a person who violates authorized uses of the student information is subject to both criminal and civil penalties. House Bill 568 references civil penalties only relative to the memorandum of understanding. However, it does not create an exception to the criminal liability provisions in current law. Because of these drafting concerns, I have vetoed House Bill 568.”

The contention that the Governor felt compelled to veto the bill over a technicality – i.e., it didn’t create an explicit exception to the criminal liability provision in the current law – is unconvincing. Even though H.B. 568 didn’t specifically address criminal liability, it’s not at all clear that it necessarily needed to do so. In any case, from a practical standpoint, it is highly unlikely that a prosecutor would pursue a misdemeanor conviction – as opposed to a civil fine – against an employee of an out-of-state research institution. In fact, to my knowledge, no one has ever faced criminal charges in Louisiana for violating the state’s student data privacy law. It’s also worth noting that the Governor’s Office never raised this concern as H.B. 568 was winding its way through the legislature and could have been amended.

The Governor’s Office never raised concerns about H.B. 568 as it was making its way through the legislature.

When taken together, the facts suggest that the decision to veto House Bill 568 had little to do with the content of the legislation and more to do with its author. Rep. Landry has clashed with the Governor repeatedly over education policy in recent years and several of the Governor’s school-related proposals have died in the House Education Committee, which Landry chairs. Although Edwards would not be the first governor to use his veto pen to punish lawmakers who opposed his agenda, it makes no sense to apply it to a bill as innocuous and apolitical as H.B. 568, especially seeing that Rep. Landry had nothing to gain by sponsoring the legislation.

Nevertheless, Governor Edwards did just that. Thanks to his veto, Louisiana’s overly broad and mind-numbingly parochial student data privacy law remains in force. Out-of-state academics who want to study our public schools will be told to look elsewhere. And as a result, our public education system won’t be able to benefit from the knowledge and insights their research would provide.


Read House Bill 568:


Read the Governor’s Veto Message:

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Charters

All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers

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For more than a year, Calcasieu Parish special education teacher Ganey Arsement has been on a self-appointed crusade against education reform in Louisiana. He has blasted charters, standardized testing, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and yours truly on his blog, as well as on social media. He has worked to coordinate his attacks with the state’s teachers unions, particularly the Louisiana Association of Educators, and has sought to ingratiate himself with anti-reform politicians like Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement with Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement has also become an increasingly visible presence in Baton Rouge, where he has spent untold hours attending meetings of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and lobbying in the hallways of the State Capitol. In recent months, Arsement has turned his guns on State Superintendent of Education John White – the bête noire of Louisiana’s reform opponents – whom he wants replaced. After failing to convince legislators that the law required them to reconfirm White (who has been on a month-to-month contract since the beginning of 2016), Arsement filed a petition in state court late last month that seeks to remove him from office.

Through it all, Arsement has portrayed himself as a selfless defender of public education who is fighting the nefarious schemes of greedy “corporate” reformers. However, a closer examination reveals that his political adventures have instead come at the expense of students and taxpayers.

Unethical and possibly worse

Official attendance records provided to me by Calcasieu Parish Schools Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus show that Arsement missed 16.5 days of work – more than three weeks of school – over the course of the 2016-17 school year.

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Arsement's absences and Calcasieu Parish School Board holidays.

According to Bruchhaus, all but one of these days (May 9, 2017) were recorded as sick leave. State law permits teachers to take two days of personal leave per year without loss of pay. The law also allows teachers to take ten days of sick leave per year due to illness or other emergencies without loss of pay. Unused sick leave can be carried over from one year to the next.

In Arsement’s case, it is clear that he took paid sick leave on many days when he was actually playing politics in Baton Rouge. Moreover, you don’t have to take my word for it, as he admits as much several times on his blog. Here are just a few examples…

What this means is that Arsement was off doing political advocacy while his special needs students were left with a substitute (who also had to be paid) and taxpayers foot the bill. I would venture to guess that most people would find that unacceptable, especially the parents of his students.

Missing absences?

If that’s not bad enough, I’ve also identified at least one day – and possibly two days – where his attendance record says he was working, but he was actually in Baton Rouge.

Several sources have confirmed that Arsement was at the Capitol during school hours on May 2nd. Nevertheless, his attendance record does not mark him absent on that date. Why that absence is missing is unclear, but since teachers verify their timesheets, the error should have been corrected.

The second day in question is May 8th when, by his own admission, he proudly delivered a petition calling for the removal of John White to the office of Senate President John Alario. Although he does not indicate when he made that delivery, one assumes he didn’t hop in his car immediately when school ended at 3:10pm to drive two hours to Baton Rouge to drop it off. In any case, Arsement is not marked absent on May 8th, either.

Exactly why reform is needed

When Arsement claims education reform supporters “demonize” teachers, what he means is that they actually expect teachers to do the work they’re paid to do. While this may seem draconian to someone who can apparently skip entire days of work and get away with it, this is not a radical concept to most of us. When taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money to pay for public education, they expect teachers to teach. When parents send their children off to school, they expect their kids will actually spend the day learning. When Arsement instead takes a bunch of sick days to lobby lawmakers for lower standards and less accountability, he’s breaking that social contract and possibly the law. Worst of all, he’s doing a tremendous disservice to the young people in his classroom – kids who need the most help.

In his effort to rollback Louisiana’s education reform policies, Arsement has inadvertently provided a real-life illustration of why they are so desperately needed. For that at least, I thank him.

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