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Louisiana State Superintendent of Education, John White at Joseph J. Davies Elementary School in Meraux on Oct. 24. 

Advocate photo by SOPHIA GERMER

After more than a year of public hearings, forums and debates, key questions remain on just how the state plans to overhaul its public schools.

The multipronged review, which was sparked by a 2015 federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, is nearing an end since officials hope to have new rules in place for the 2017-18 school year.

However, there are big differences in what state Superintendent of Education John White backs compared to plans proposed by a panel named by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The governor's panel has recommended more sweeping changes, including a push to eliminate public school letter grades, major revisions in annual teacher evaluations and fewer science tests.

Donald Songy, the governor's education policy adviser, said he is in regular contact with White. Both officials stressed that the talks have been cordial.

"On most of these issues, there is going to be a lot of agreement," Songy said. 

"There are going to be two or three that will be contentious," he said. "We will try to work through those and see what  we can do."

One of those issues, Songy said, is how much the state should trim testing, an Edwards priority.

The council wants to limit science exams to grades five and eight. They are now given annually in grades three through eight.

The chairwoman of the state's ongoing review of science standards said last month that the move would devalue science.

White's draft plan includes a more general call for less testing and focused in part on older students. His proposal would limit end-of-year state testing to no more than one week per student and to never exceed 2 percent of instructional minutes in a school year.

Also, state exams in math and English would be limited to one per year in grades 9, 10 and 11.

Michael Faulk, a member of the council and superintendent of the Central School District, said he would put the need for fewer tests at the top of his list. "We hope that would be addressed, but I don't have the sense that it will," Faulk said.

White's initial draft, which he said will be revised by the end of the month, proposed modest changes in public school operations, including a new formula to measure schools that is still under debate.

The state review is supposed to result in a plan to improve student achievement and help students from low-income families and those with disabilities.

But like many education issues in Louisiana, this one has turned into another battle between those who have backed sweeping changes in public schools since 2012 and those who want to roll those changes back.

The call by the governor's panel to consider dropping public school letter grades is a hot-button topic.

The council also wants teacher job reviews to focus on classroom observations by principals for 80 percent of the score and student test scores for 20 percent.

Under a 2016 state law, classroom observations by principals account for 50 percent of the score, academic gains 35 percent and other signs of student achievement 15 percent.

No such changes in grades or job reviews was part of White's draft plan, which he released Sept. 28.

However, Songy said neither topic is expected to spark major arguments in the plan submitted to federal officials, because both would require changes in state law.

Songy said that on Feb. 22, he and others will meet with education consultants to review White's plan and the recommendations of the governor's advisory council. "And try to more or less say what is in line with ESSA, what is not, what is good policy and what is bad policy," he said.

Songy said the governor will have at least 30 days, and maybe 60, to review the final version.

In another dispute, council members favor implementing the changes for the 2018-19 school year.

"The goal is to make sure all stakeholders have sincere, meaningful input into the process for whatever our new system looks like," said Scott Richard, a member of the panel and executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Key meetings are pending on the final details.

On Feb. 8 the Louisiana Accountability Commission is set to meet to resume debate on a big part of White's proposal. The commission advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Under current rules, public school letter grades are based most on test results.

White proposed setting the weight of annual academic growth at 25 percent of the grade for all students, not just 7 percent for low-achieving students, which is current policy.

Whether that should be higher or lower remains in dispute on the commission.

Panel leaders hope to win approval for a compromise next month.

Edwards' advisory group is set to hold its final hearing on Feb. 23.

BESE may take up the final state plan at  its March meeting.

White said the final version will include policy input from BESE, the Legislature and the governor.

"And the Department of Education is the vehicle for taking all of those policies and putting them into one plan," he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.