School board member questions letter grading of public schools, but not charter schools

‘They don’t measure them the same way.’

While public schools are subject to performance review and letter grades each year by the Louisiana Education Department, the same is not true for all charter schools — and at least one St. Charles Parish school board member believes it’s well past time for that to change.

District 1 representative Ellis Alexander said charter schools need to be held to the same grading standards as public schools, and that the failure to make that change will only lead to an accumulation of problems for the public school system as time goes on.

“Between the state superintendent and the BESE board, they come up and give the schools a grade,” Alexander said. “And they kind of paint a bad picture of public schools. They take taxpayer money and will give it to families for kids to attend charter schools, or in some cases, so-called charter schools. They don’t measure them the same way and that’s not fair in my opinion.”

While there are public charter schools that are assigned letter grades, many are not. Among Alexander’s concerns is his belief that because many charter schools aren’t assigned a letter grade, a public school that receives a below average grade or sees a high grade slip stands to lose students to a charter school, whereas the opposite is not true.

“If it’s an A, people will think that’s a good school and I’ll send my child there. But if not, you’ll see people shy away,” Alexander said. “I think with a lot of these charter schools, you just don’t know what you’re getting.”

Alexander also said that in a number of cases, non-traditional schools have increasingly “popped up” over the past five years.

“You look at our schools, we have school buildings. Our schools look like schools. But you have schools coming up that are in a house or a warehouse,” he said. “I think some kind of grading system for them would shed some light on what exactly someone’s getting when they sign up.”

While there are no charter schools in St. Charles Parish, Alexander worries that the system in place will lead to an increased number of parents taking their children to school outside of the parish.

“The state gives (charter schools) the same amount of money they give us,” he said. “It’s always been an issue, people taking the money, whatever we spend per pupil, and saying I’ll take that money and bring my kids to X, Y or Z charter school in St. John or Orleans parishes. If somebody just started a school here, they would draw some of our students.”

For St. Charles Parish schools, the prospect of unattractive grades hasn’t manifested. The parish’s school system has long held an A rating and has been recognized among the best school districts in the state.

Alexander said those working within the school system work tirelessly to keep its grade at that level, but he also noted it’s getting tougher to do so with budget cuts and an evolving grading system that he believes could ultimately be detrimental to the scores the district has become accustomed to.

“This year, the criteria’s a little different. It’s possible our grade may not be as good as last year,” Alexander said. “We’re not going to pay attention to that, though, because we know what we have here, the quality people who are on the job to give our students the very best. We’re always going to do our very best with the money we have and the students we get.

“Probably 10 percent of our children have some kind of disability. Some are severe and profound. And we’re going to educate these kids, but it can be very difficult in some cases. That can draw your grade down. A lot of charter schools won’t even accept children with disabilities. So it’s not an even playing field. Absolutely not.”

Ultimately, he hopes to see change to even out a playing field in what he believes has become a deck increasingly stacked against the institution of public schooling.

“The BESE board and the State Superintendent seem like they’re trying to paint a harsh picture of public schools, as if they want to get rid of them altogether. It’s simply not fair,” Alexander said.

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