SADOW: Veto Bill Weakening Education Accountability

A last-minute end-around sabotaging Louisiana’s school accountability measures that prominently featured two Bossier Parish Republican legislators with extensive connections to local schools now may be stopped only by GOP Gov. Jeff Landry.

HB 762 by Republican state Rep. Dennis Bamburg originally would have repealed the state’s requirement that students take the ACT, one of the two standardized tests offered for college admission nationally and the one designated by Louisiana public universities to gain admittance. For several years Louisiana statutorily has required this of all students seeking a diploma, one of eight states that do so. Even the career diploma graduates must, although they also can take the WorkKeys test designed for more vocational-oriented learning. The rationale for this has been not only to allow students to have this in place should they wish to enroll in higher education, but also as a means of measuring performance of high schools and school districts.

This has chafed among legislators generally Democrats and some Republicans like Bamburg, a former Bossier Parish School Board member, with ties to the educational establishment, and has aggravated many local school board members and their district superintendents. This is because the nationally-normed ACT continues to show generally low performance, along with end-of-course tests, among Louisiana students (although ranked in the middle of the eight) that meshes poorly with performance scores given out to high schools that feeds into district scores. Currently, for accountability determinations all ACT scores count unless a WorkKey score equivalent is higher.

In 2022, Superintendent Cade Brumley attempted to bring the two more in line as part of a broader overhaul that fell apart amid details and concerns about recovery from the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, now comprised after last year’s elections of membership more sympathetic to aligning scoring with student performance, has formulated another accountability reform. Among other changes, this one broadens the use of nationally-normed tests, adding a military diploma to university and career, and sets benchmarks that determines scoring and penalizes for every student that does not take the ACT. BESE will vote to accept promulgation of this rule at its regular meeting next week.

Bamburg’s original bill entirely would have thwarted this, although when he appeared in front of the House Education Committee on Apr. 30 he offered up amendments significantly altering that. He said the bill came as an inspiration from conversations with Bossier School District Superintendent Jason Rowland, who about a month previously in a public statement infamously equated education savings accounts, or having education dollars follow the student that maximized family choice, with racist motives (as well as spearheaded a questionable foray into the district providing health clinics prior to his current job). Bamburg in his testimony implied that there had been a disagreement between the two on the ESA concept – Bamburg later did vote for a mild version putting that into statute in the coming years – and as a palliative sought Rowland’s input into something “that’s favorable for public schools in Louisiana.”

Apparently, Rowland suggested dropping the ACT requirement, but when hearing of the coming accountability standards Bamburg trashed the original language, as well as seeing the fate of a similar bill, SB 259 by Democrat state Sen. Katrina Jackson-Andrews in the Senate that crashed and burned. His next try would have allowed dropping the ACT for all, but federal law preventing different assessments for different agencies made this intractable. Committee Chairwoman GOP state Rep. Laurie Schlegel then offered new language that would have allowed the ACT to substitute for end-of-course tests and allow other optionally other tests to do the same, but did not eliminate the requirement for all to take the ACT.

On the House floor, Bamburg successfully broadened the bill to make the exit exam exemption mandatory from the ACT only. Another amendment by GOP state Rep. Chuck Owen added the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Test along with WorkKeys that could be taken in addition, which would fit in with the coming regulations. It passed the chamber easily.

There it stuck in the Senate Education Committee, which had dispatched SB 259 into the ether, after an amendment was proposed that would drop the ACT requirement for those students taking the alternatives. Then, days before session end it suddenly was discharged out of that and into Senate and Governmental Affairs – which has no jurisdiction over these matters and this session has gained notoriety as a repository for bills which interest the Senate leadership, with this move possible only through the instigation of Republican Sen. Pres. Cameron Henry.

At that venue, and then amplified on the Senate floor, the gist of SB 259 that made the ACT optional by taking either of the two alternatives, was inserted. With Henry’s backing, the measure passed with only five votes against and three absences. That new language didn’t satisfy the House, which rejected the amended bill on the second to last session day and forced a conference committee.

Named to that on the House side besides Bamburg was Schlegel and Republican state Rep. Beau Beaullieu. Senate conferees were Jackson-Andrews, making sense since so much of her bill became inserted into it, GOP state Sen. Eddie Lambert, and Republican state Sen. Adam Bass, who had served with Bamburg on the Bossier Parish School Board.

The product came out much more like the Senate version in that it retained the optional requirement of the ACT as well as jettisoned the ability of the ACT to substitute for end-of-course exams. In fact, it even would allow WorkKeys as an option for college-bound diplomas and have the highest score count for accountability purposes. Schelgel refused to sign off on it, but the other five did – including Bamburg, as this version essentially accomplished what his original bill asked, and Bass.

Presenting the report, Bamburg admitted BESE hadn’t been consulted on the final language, yet reiterated that it wasn’t fair that all students had to take the ACT. Some questioning legislators – echoing commentary in the House panel – griped about multiple test-takings, making students not interested in college at the time take a college entrance exam, and applauded the bill for increased parental choice. Moreover, Bamburg also admitted that there were “issues” in the compulsory ACT requirement because it made school performances look worse and noted school boards and superintendents supported this.

And there was the crux of support of the bill, which reflected the political wishes of school districts and their water carrier Bamburg. The real reason why they supported something like this is the ACT reflects a truer picture of their actual performance. It has nothing to do with the red herring of non-college-intended students having to take it and through lack of motivation dragging down scores; after all, they could take WorkKeys and if they did better that score replaced their ACT score when computing school and district accountability. Make ACT scores optional, they reason, and potentially steer more WorkKeys or ASVAB attempts that have the possibility of more higher scores for accountability purposes than otherwise. To them appearances matter more than results because it makes them look better, and they invoked specious argumentation to suck in support of legislators who should have known better.

It ended up passing, narrowly, and across partisan boundaries that created atypical patterns. For example, fellow Bossier Parish Republican Reps. Raymond Crews and Dodie Horton don’t often disagree on measures, but this time Horton went with Bamburg – and even signed up as a co-author – while Crews voted against his bill now almost unrecognizable from its earliest forms.

In contrast to a half-hour debate on the busiest legislative day of the year in the House, with Henry’s support known and time running short on the session, the Senate whipped the report through only five minutes after the House vote, with few dissenters. Even though, along with Bamburg, Bass was a major architect of the final product, the other Bossier Parish senator GOP state Sen. Alan Seabaugh didn’t share that enthusiasm and was one of the few to vote it down.

When BESE, on the cusp of setting up an accountability system the bill would invalidate, got wind of this, its members immediately communicated to draft a response asking Landry to veto HB 762 that became public two days after session close. With all but one member signing it (and it was unclear whether the missing name, Democrat Preston Castille, had learned of the effort in time to participate in it), members noted that requiring the ACT of all graduates left open more options for students’ future higher education studies, created incentive for them to learn more in anticipation of taking it, and established a valid and reliable benchmark for evaluation. Asking for a few hours of a student’s time out of four years isn’t too much to gain this benefit that schools can use to improve their delivery, and its content tested over isn’t inapplicable to any student or subset of students because, at its core, it asks about basic skills that education should inculcate.

As if to verify the use of HB 762 as a stalking horse to gun down the accountability reforms, the next day BESE’s advisory board the Superintendents’ Advisory Council voted to oppose the those, with its reasoning matching the unspoken impetus of the bill: a compulsory ACT was part of a framework measuring delivery that they saw might make their districts appear doing worse than they thought actually was the case, even if the ACT tested the basics. BESE’s letter indicates this argument won’t carry the day, but if the bill becomes law, the sentiment of the panel is in part achieved and would require alteration of the BESE rule-making.

Odds are Landry, who consistently has expressed support for reforms that enhance educational quality, will veto it as it quite clearly would create, all red-herring objections aside, a new barrier towards achieving educational excellence. If that’s not enough, Landry might want to take a poke at Henry as the two have butted heads over some items this session, especially over the unrealized desire by Landry to have a constitutional convention called to which Henry responded coolly, or to chastise Bass who almost certainly, given the norms of the Senate, effectively cast a veto against Landry’s choice to sit on Bossier Parish’s Board of Election Supervisors, Barry Butler.

Regardless, the Bossier Parish duo of legislative rookies Bamburg and Bass were instrumental in producing legislation that ultimately would degrade the quality of educational delivery in the state and that would suit the political agenda of those in charge of their old stomping grounds and others like that. It might serve parish educrats and politicians but it disserves generally the parish and more specifically its children, and serves as a call for them to put aside parochial interests and to embrace in the future a more holistic policy view on these kinds of issues.

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