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The Airline Highway construction entrance to BASIS Baton Rouge, a much touted charter school set to open in August and as seen on March 9, 2018. The charter school is being built next to Woman’s Hospital as part of a corporate partnership with the hospital. The school is one of a number of charter schools set to open in East Baton Rouge.

A popular charter school in Baton Rouge is pushing ahead with implementing higher standards for promoting its students to the next grade after a recent favorable legal opinion from the state Attorney General.

“We believe that we are on the right track and that we are following all of our contractual requirements,” said DeAnna Rowe, executive director of BASIS Baton Rouge.

The Attorney General’s opinion, dated Dec. 8, found that BASIS is not required under its operating contract to get the approval of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system before it can put into effect its education plan, which includes administering a high-stakes test to students in its upper grades, starting with this year’s sixth-graders.

However, the lead attorney for the school system said he plans to try again with the state agency, led by Attorney General Jeff Landry, asking the office to issue a second opinion addressing legal questions not addressed in the Dec. 8 opinion.

"It doesn’t really answer the questions I’ve raised,” said Gwynn Shamlin, the school district’s general counsel.

Arizona-based BASIS, which has several high schools that each year make national best-of lists for their academics, opened its first school in Louisiana in 2018. Located next to Woman’s Hospital, its corporate sponsor, BASIS Baton Rouge quickly became popular and now has about 700 students in grades kindergarten to six. High demand led the School Board in May 2019 to agree to allow BASIS to open another school in Baton Rouge, which is under construction and scheduled to open in August.

Charter schools are public schools run privately via contracts, or charters.

The current controversy centers around annual comprehensive exams that the non-profit BASIS charter school network administers. These tests are developed by BASIS.ed, a for-profit arm of the organization that — for a fee — provides curriculum, training and other services to BASIS schools.

Rowe said BASIS’ comprehensive exams cover a range of subjects and include a mix of “common” questions developed by teachers organized through BASIS.ed as well as “native” questions supplied by the classroom teacher.

Other East Baton Rouge public schools have no such high-stakes test for sixth grade. Public schools in Louisiana typically only give high-stakes tests if they are required to do so by the state.

The annual exams are outlined in what’s known as a pupil progression plan. That document, developed annually, lays out how a school district ensures “the student's mastery of grade-appropriate skills before he or she can be recommended for promotion.”

Several East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members, however, balked at the plan when it was presented to them in September, worried that the charter school would use it to weed out students. The board on Sept. 17 voted 5-4 to seek an Attorney General’s Opinion on the matter.

Attorney General’s opinions, while influential, are only opinions, lacking the legal force of court rulings.

BASIS and the other nine district-sponsored charter schools in Baton Rouge — known as Type 1 charters — all have been using the school system’s pupil progression plan. BASIS is the first such charter school in the parish to push for its own plan.

Non-district charter schools, particularly those sponsored by the state, already have the freedom to establish their own pupil progression plans. Type 1 charter schools like BASIS don’t enjoy the same freedom in state law, but BASIS is arguing that the terms of its contract with East Baton Rouge give it freedom akin to what those other charter schools enjoy.

The charter school group prevailed upon state Rep. Rick Edmonds of Baton Rouge to request an Attorney General's opinion in late September. Around the same time, Shamlin submitted his own opinion request on behalf of the parish School Board.

The two requests are notably different. Edmonds’ request focuses on what’s required in the BASIS charter contract, which took effect in July 2018. The school district’s request focuses on nailing down the powers of school systems when it comes to the pupil progression plans of Type 1 charters, as well as what happens when the contracts of those charters conflict with state law.

The Dec. 8 opinion, written by Assistant Attorney General Carey Jones, deals only with Rep. Edmonds’s issues and is silent on the issues raised by Shamlin. Jones concludes that the charter school has already done all that it’s required to by its contract.

“Nothing in the contract, however, requires that the pupil progression plan be approved by the School Board prior to the implementation of the plan,” according to the opinion written by Assistant Attorney General Carey Jones. “The terms of the contract are clear and unambiguous in that the charter operator is required to annually submit its pupil progression plan to the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.”

Jones acknowledges that the terms of the contract itself allow the School Board to challenge the validity of the pupil progression plan “if it fails to comport with state law and regulation as well as School Board policies,” though Jones professes no knowledge of any such non-compliance.

“We have received no indication that it is not in compliance, but if even if we had received information in that connection, it would be outside the scope of this request for this office to investigate and weigh disputed factual claims,” Jones said.

Shamlin’s Oct. 8 letter, however, raises just such questions.

For instance, Shamlin said the BASIS contract “appears to be inconsistent” with the authority given to School Boards by state law and education regulations to approve a pupil progression plan for its schools, including its Type 1 charters.

“The School Board seeks advice whether a contractual term is valid if it contradicts authority given to the political subdivision under applicable law,” Shamlin writes.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.