For the past nine years I’ve worked diligently to ensure that all kids have access to a high-quality education, first as a classroom teacher, then as head of the charter schools office at the Louisiana Department of Education and as Chief Strategy Officer at Jefferson Parish Public Schools.
This year, my vantage expanded from that of educator and advocate to parent. It was time for my five-year-old to apply to kindergarten. My wife and I carefully navigated the public school application process in Orleans Parish. We learned a lot in the process, and also gained some dismaying insights into the lack of equity and transparency in some of our schools — particularly charter schools with selective admissions policies and sometimes quirky application requirements.
The application engine for the vast majority of public schools in Orleans Parish is Enroll Nola (sometimes called OneApp). This system was designed by the Recovery School District to make school enrollment easier and more transparent in a system of schools that are not all under one central office and are not zoned by neighborhood. Today all schools in the Recovery School District (RSD), Type 2 charter schools and the traditional schools plus some charters run by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) participate in Enroll Nola. The holdouts are the OPSB charters with selective admissions policies.
Enroll Nola is not perfect, but the problem isn’t the paperwork. We found the forms online, and they proved to be notably straightforward and simple. Middle-class parents like my wife and me are planners, however, and accustomed to being in greater control of our lives.
We had to wait later in the year than we would have liked to submit the application, and then we had to put our faith in the algorithm that is used to match students with their ranked school choices. Waiting for the results was another time of tension. With a deep sigh of relief, we found out on April 10 that our child was assigned to the school that had been our first choice: Bricolage.
Whatever its flaws, Enroll Nola turns a blind eye to parental means, education and privilege. This is the most transparent and equitable way officials have come up with for allocating school seats.
The alternative experience, the selective admissions policies still in place at Lusher and eight other OPSB charter schools, is deeply disturbing and patently unfair to less well-informed parents. What with admissions tests, multiple mandatory meetings and in-person delivery of applications, it is small wonder why fewer than 50 percent of students at Lusher are minorities, and why only 21 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged. By contrast, 98 percent of RSD students in New Orleans are minorities, and 92 percent are economically disadvantaged.
After my application experience, and armed with the aforementioned statistics, I decided to look a little deeper into the disparities separating Enroll Nola schools from OPSB charters that refuse to use the uniform admissions process.
For starters, I contacted Kathy Riedlinger, Lusher’s chief executive officer, to ask which test they use for admissions. Intelligence assessments — “IQ tests” — are expressly prohibited in state law, and some assessment manufacturers make clear that one-time results on knowledge-assessment tests also are a faulty basis for high-stakes decisions.
Knowledge assessments simply test what a kid has been explicitly taught up to that point. And as a parent of a five-year-old, I know that performance on any task can be highly contingent on what he ate for breakfast or whether he got to use his favorite spoon.
Riedlinger met my first question with a question of her own — which is an illegal response to a public records request. Her question: Why did I want to know what test was administered? In a follow-up phone call, Riedlinger angrily told me I could take her to court if I wanted to pursue my line of inquiry, again breaking the law by not releasing public information.
In connection with this column, I followed up with Riedlinger a third time. Now she claimed to be exempt from the public records law, citing a statute that shields the Louisiana Department of Education and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from releasing assessment data such as test questions, scoring keys and the like.
But all I wanted was the name of the test. Ironically, she stated that refusing to reveal the name was about “equity and fairness” so that certain students do not have an advantage in the admissions process. She said she is currently seeking an opinion from the state Attorney General on whether Lusher must release it.
If knowing the name of an assessment gives you an advantage in an admissions process, it’s a terrible admissions process.
Taking someone to court does not foster the transparency and equity that have become watchwords of the school reform movement. What are needed are proper school oversight and a commitment to these ideals. And yet, if you browse the government contracts authorizing OPSB selective charter schools, you won’t see detailed descriptions of admissions processes. You’ll see vague references to an unnamed assessment and a “matrix” that will be used for admissions. If you look at the students attending these schools, you’ll often see a demographic mix that doesn’t reflect the population of our city.
Lusher is not alone in adding hoops that parents must jump through if their children are to be considered for admissions. Audubon, for example, requires attendance at a curriculum meeting, in-person application submission and an admissions test for grades 3-8. Lake Forest requires attendance at an in-person meeting, a student handwriting sample (which assumes the student has been taught how to write), an admissions assessment, and achieving a certain score on a matrix.
I asked OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis about Enroll Nola. “As the Superintendent of Schools in Orleans Parish, I am committed to supporting all of our schools’ participation in Enroll Nola,” he said. “The common application system in New Orleans schools is a vital part of our plan to transition OPSB into a premier portfolio school district.”
An argument has been made that nothing should be done about schools with overly complex admissions requirements until the end of their current charter term (in 2021 in most cases), and this is the stance taken by the previous board. That means OPSB and the schools will be negligent for another six years in providing adequate detail about their admissions procedures.
If the only way to rectify that negligence is to amend the charters, I say go for it — even if the changes require judicial intervention. If Lewis is sincere about Enroll Nola being a vital part of his plan for OPSB, I call on him to push all schools under his supervision to start using it well before 2021.
If someone is going to go to court, let it be over something more germane to the education of New Orleans kids than a principal resisting a public records request.
Jacob Landry is a parent, an entrepreneur and a consultant with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.