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Songy record problematic in achievement, legal issues

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education District 6 runoff between Republican incumbent Chas Roemer and Democrat challenger Donald Songy has taken the most ideological tone of the remaining undecided contests. But also the “professional” vs. “outsider” theme needs reviewing to judge the qualifications of the candidates.

Roemer, a businessman, has argued that his approach, promoting school choice such as by facilitating charter school operation and dismantling counterproductive institutions and processes by means such as tying teacher evaluation more closely to performance, will move the state out of dwelling at or close to the bottom of educational achievement statistics. Songy opposes many of these reform efforts and contends that his three decades of working in public schools, the last four year before retirement as superintendent of Ascension Parish schools, makes him more capable of creating improvement.

Songy, of course, must address the obvious question of using his career and approach as examples of qualifications when they took part in an educational system that has performed poorly; was he and his outlook then not part of the problem?
In a fashion, Songy and his supporters try to rebut by pointing to the district where he served and led; growing fast in population, building new schools without endangering its financial stability, and, relative to other districts in the state, a higher achiever. They attempt to imply that his presence on BESE would bring the same benefits at the state level.

But when getting below the surface of this impression, some facts emerge that question this narrative of quality administration. When Songy became superintendent in 2006, at the end of that school year the district ranked tenth in the state in performance, scoring just under the 100 standard. Of its 21 schools, none ranked in the highest category, then called “five star” (today graded as ‘A’), one was four star, ten three star, five two-star, four one star, and one “academically unacceptable.” In terms of growth targets the state set, of the 16 schools rated, almost 70 percent achieved some growth.

In his final year on the job, the district ranked ninth in the state, just below the now higher 105 target (and was one of the few districts to suffer a decline from the previous year). Of the now 25 schools’ performance, while still none were five star, four had become four star, twelve three star, five two, none one star but now four were academically unacceptable. And now only 38.5 percent of schools were meeting their growth targets.

A possible explanation for why the number of unacceptable schools had risen 300 percent during Songy’s term may have to do with his and the School Board’s decision to change attendance zones and feeder systems in response, they have asserted, to overcrowding issues. Unfortunately, that decision has become embroiled in legal issues, where last week a three-judge panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Board, using Songy’s plan, may have committed racial discrimination by concentrating defined “at-risk” students at several schools under the guise of addressing the overcrowding issue.

In other words, the Court said the district had not yet proved, in response to a lawsuit that said it did not, that it used sufficiently racially-neutral motives in the plan, and that the courts could not summarily dismiss the suit as a result. At best, this shows Songy did not use good judgment in formulating the plan where it was suspect legally. At worst, it shows he let racial considerations improperly enter into the decision calculus ratified by the Board. Neither conclusion commends him to service on BESE.

Aside from that decision, the most optimistic interpretation of Songy’s record is that he kept a mediocre-performing district at that level. This strengthens Roemer’s argument that tinkering at the margins as Songy suggests won’t cut it for a state that looks to make substantial improvement in its educational quality, and that only Roemer’s very different agenda can fulfill that promise. Songy’s record as Ascension superintendent, ignoring the legal issues it spawned, does not suggest he can.

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