Challenge to La. Accountability Law Heads to Trial

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A challenge to a Louisiana law requiring school systems to identify their lowest-achieving schools was scheduled to go to trial this week.

The petition was filed by a trio of Democratic lawmakers from New Orleans, who oppose the state school board's enforcement of a 1997 law that aims to hold districts accountable for their performance.

The case, which was scheduled for a March 10 hearing in civil district court in New Orleans, is noteworthy at a time when accountability is a national buzzword and numerous states and districts are identifying the schools that need the most help.

The Louisiana representatives, Naomi E. Farve, Arthur A. Morrell, and Cynthia Willard-Lewis, obtained a court order March 1 that prevented the 85,000-student Orleans Parish district from naming the 20 percent of its schools that have the worst test scores and attendance. All of the state's 66 parishes--except for New Orleans--have complied with the state policy.

Chilling Effect?

In Louisiana, parishes are roughly equivalent to counties, and school districts are organized along parish boundaries.

Ms. Willard-Lewis' brother, lawyer Walter Willard, filed the petition arguing that the accountability policy violates the state constitution by stigmatizing children as underachievers, thus violating their civil rights. Most children at the struggling schools, he said, are poor and black.

"If we're trying to enhance the success of children, we shouldn't subject them to harsh criticism in the form of a public declaration that says, 'Here are the dummy schools,'" Mr. Willard said last week. "The impact of publishing the list will have a chilling effect on kids' ability to learn."

The local school board was scheduled to release the list of the lowest-performing schools late last month, but it delayed the announcement, knowing that the lawmakers were fighting the policy.

The board's vice president, J. Berengher Brechtel, said last week that "naming the schools is a good chance to focus in on our problems. If they need tutors or other resources, let's do it."

Glenny Lee Buquet, the president of the state board, said implementing accountability is crucial in a state that often ranks at the bottom on educational barometers. "If accountability is not constitutional," she said, "We're all in big trouble."

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