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State must expand school choice in Caddo

It’s time for Louisiana’s Department of Education to intervene more forcefully with struggling Caddo Parish schools.

After some period of treading water, CPSD as a whole took a step backwards last year as it slid solidly into ‘C’ territory (in absolute terms; for years "grading" of schools has occurred on a curve) according to the state’s district accountability measure. What comfort came from its overall performance as not absolutely dismal hides the fact that a majority of its schools rank as ‘D’ or ‘F’ and these enroll over half of all district students.

Yet despite a history of having a significant portion of its school performing below par, unlike the other two major metropolitan districts in the state little educational choice developed in the parish. The state oversees only one charter school there, Linwood, and only three charters operate independently (one with two campuses). Several other schools operate under a memorandum of understanding model that leaves the district in charge of these but having to meet certain objectives negotiated by the state.

None of these schools rate highly – alternative schools aside, a couple scored D and the remainder F – but expectedly so, since when these underwent these new reorganizations all had a history of abysmal scoring. For those with more than a year’s worth of history, the charters showed some to significant progress over the past couple of years while the others only one regressed with remainder making good progress.

Contrast this with the remainder of the district schools that remained open or merged. Most overall performance gain from the previous year came from the higher-scoring schools, while those scoring F collectively barely budged upwards. Worse, most F schools had slipped over the previous two years, remaining far away from achieving a higher rank, and more D schools fell into the F category than vice versa.

In other words, several schools for years under traditional district management have continued persistently underperforming. Some were closed and others merged, such as in north Caddo last year, and this upcoming year Fair Park and Booker T. Washington will combine. But the district has typified these decisions as responses to demographic patterns and cost considerations, even as most involved D and F schools.

Over this period, in Caddo LDOE has kept a remarkably hands-off approach. By comparison, it took over most schools in Orleans Parish years ago and all, regardless of state or local control, will operate as charters, while in East Baton Rouge – which includes the city and other unincorporated areas in that parish – which has district-wide scores similarly to Caddo, last year it oversaw seven schools with eight other charters operating.

And Caddo has become less capable of making the necessary financial investments to turn around the persistently struggling schools. After years of deficit spending, its general fund reserve was budgeted to sink under $19 million by the end of last fiscal year from almost $45 million unreserved a decade ago.

Last week, state Superintendent John White held a community meeting to discuss recommendations for improving district performance. While next month the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will decide what to do, it appeared to signal that White would suggest more aggressive remediation of the several failing Caddo Schools.

At the very least, LDOE should offer these schools to charter operators and as a fallback position pursue more MOU with Caddo concerning these. Too many years have gone by with too little progress; only one in 50 students from a failing high school typically qualify for a Taylor Opportunity Program for Students award. Multiple Caddo superintendents and a School Board essentially turned over in membership since public school choice came to Caddo have not gotten the job done. The district needs applied to it a different approach.

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