Amid questions and criticism, Louisiana's top school board Tuesday delayed a vote on major changes to a Baton Rouge charter school for students with dyslexia.
The school is the Louisiana Key Academy, which has about 300 students in grades 1-5 and is led by Dr. Laura Cassidy, who is the wife of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge.
It is also one of the few public or private schools for students who have trouble reading and difficulties recognizing words – dyslexia.
State Superintendent of Education John White noted that charter schools face state reviews when they are one year away from the end of their initial authorization. The school got an "F" for its 2016 state-issued letter grade.
"In this case Louisiana Key Academy has not met the conditions for extension," White said. But he recommended that the school get a probationary extension, subject to changes in school operations.
The new rules would revamp the way the school is measured by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and require most students to take annual state exams during the 2017-18 school year.
BESE President Jim Garvey, an attorney from Metairie, sought and won approval for a delay on the proposal until January.
Garvey said the delay is needed because questions remain on school changes, including how to craft a rubric to measure student progress.
"I think we can do that in the next 30 days," he said.
The school was authorized by BESE in 2012.
Children are immersed in language therapy in hopes they can become fluent readers.
President Barack Obama has signed into law legislation backed by U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy that…
"I trust the BESE board will do the right thing," Dr. Laura Cassidy, president and chairwoman of the board that oversees the school, said after the meeting.
While a probationary extension is unusual, White said state law allows it and does not spell out any criteria. "This is not a cut and dry issue under the law," he said.
White said later that, since families opted students out of state tests, "BESE has no verifable record as to student skills."
Test results are usually the key barometer on whether charters are extended.
Critics questioned how the state's review unfolded.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said the issue points up the need for more transparency in the review of charter schools, which are public schools run by non-governmental boards.
"It continues to be a process that deserves more discussion." Richard told BESE.
Brian LeJeune, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said an ongoing review of school policies should include the charter school renewal process "so we don't have situations like this."
Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said the state has one of the top-rated charter school laws in the nation. "I disagree that this process is less than transparent," Roemer said.
After the meeting, Garvey said he wants to see how the state can come up with a new way to assess students since state-mandated exam results will mean little. "As a whole the school is going to fail every year," he said.
Garvey said that, because of the school's ambitious agenda, BESE can employ an alternative rubric "that focuses on how they are doing with dyslexic students compared to two things."
"One, how other Louisiana schools are doing with dyslexic students, and two how other schools nationwide are doing with dyslexic students," he said.
Cassidy said questions about the school, which has a waiting list , stem in part from the nature of its students, including the fact that none read on grade level.
Kristie Manuel, who has a son who attends Key Academy, said her family moved to Louisiana strictly because of what the academy offers.
"My son changed overnight." Manuel told BESE. "When he started going to school for dyslexic students, he stopped having meltdowns."