A Raleigh-based advocacy group that is a big supporter of the state’s new school voucher program as well as charter schools launched a web application this week that relies on the state’s controversial A-F school grading system to provide information to families about their local public and private school options.

Brian Jodice, a representative for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC) said the web-based app has been in the works for six or seven months.

“We just thought we should provide parents with a tool to make it as easy as possible to help families find choices,” said Jodice. “So we came up with a way to direct them to one spot.”

When users log onto the application, they must enter personal information as well as a zip code (there’s no mention on the site of what PEFNC will do with that personal information). Then, a list of nearby schools pops up. The list sorts options into “traditional” public schools, “public charter” schools, and “private” schools.

img_0101The anchor of the app is the feature that highlights colorful letter grades next to each traditional public school and public charter school name. The grades are calculated using the state’s relatively new—and controversial—A-F school grading system, which was put into place by the General Assembly beginning with the 2013-14 school year in the interest of providing families with more transparency when it comes to how local public schools are performing.

But critics of the letter grades, which were developed based on former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s A-F school grading system, contend that North Carolina’s version simply serves as a proxy for socioeconomic status. [Read more about A-F school grades HERE and HERE.]

That’s because the grades rely heavily on students’ performance on standardized tests at one point in time. Only 20 percent of the formula for devising letter grades takes into account how schools help students grow over time in terms of their academic performance—and as a result, some say that the grades are not always a good indicator of a school’s quality and could even present misinformation.

PEFNC’s executive director, Darrell Allison, cautioned that the letter grades should be just one factor out of many that contribute to a family’s decision about educating their children.

“To just rely on this [A-F school grades] and this alone is not what we are after,” said Allison, who added that his group plans to add additional information to the web based app in the coming months, including an element that explains to parents how well a school is doing in terms of its students’ academic growth.

“Letter grades are one tool and you can’t hang everything on that. A much better approach would be to see how this school is trending over the last few years with regard to growth,” said Allison.

Private schools listed in the app are only the ones that are participating in the state’s new school voucher program [formal name: Opportunity Scholarships] and they have no accompanying letter grades because they are not required to participate in the state’s accountability system, despite receiving public money. That’s a problem, according to Leanne Winner, governmental relations director for the NC School Boards Association, who said that the A-F school grading system is flawed to begin with for its failure to reflect how well a school is helping students grow over time. Nonetheless, if PEFNC’s app will feature letter grades, then she said they should exist for all schools receiving public funds.

“If it’s going to be there, it needs to be there for all categories [of schools].”

Allison acknowledges the scant information related to private schools in his organization’s app and says he plans to expand it further. “In next month or so, we will list tuition [rates],” said Allison.

And as far as measures of transparency and accountability for private schools listed in the app, Allison says that he hopes to incorporate the findings of a third party independent research organization that will be reported to the General Assembly soon.

Those findings will include the results of financial audits for private schools that receive more than $300,000 in public dollars annually (which is presently only a small percentage of participating private schools) and student academic outcomes for schools that have more than 25 voucher-funded students (that data will be impossible to compare to public schools’ academic outcomes, though, given that private schools can choose any nationally normed standardized test).

Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Durham), a lawmaker who has in the past sought to improve the A-F school grading system, said PEFNC’s move to develop the new app was clever.

“If you’re trying to direct parents away from public schools and into private schools and charters, this is a very clever technique,” said Rep. Meyer. “They are setting up an easy way for parents to see if a school has been labeled as failing, and then point them to an alternative. But that’s all based on the presumption that the school grades are valid measures of schools to begin with.”

Rep. Meyer said there’s broad consensus that the A-F school grading system is a limited measure of quality for public schools.  

“A tool like this seems to me to be manipulative of uninformed parents and fails to help them understand what all of their school choices are, including their choices within their local public school system, like magnet schools, and the choices they have to get involved and make their local district schools better,” said Rep. Meyer.

Rep. Meyer said it’s also worth noting that the app only directs families to private schools participating in the voucher program.

“I don’t see Durham Academy or other elite private schools listed,” said Rep. Meyer. “The reality is a $4,000 voucher doesn’t get you into a $40,000 private school. So the idea that this is really offering total school choice isn’t correct.”

PEFNC’s Allison says he’s comfortable with the accountability mechanisms for private schools that the state already has in place and that they shouldn’t be just like those that exist for public schools, anyway. “I happen to like the standards we have because at the end of the day it is up to the parents to decide what they are comfortable with,” said Allison.

As for the web application, Allison says he just wants to get more information about school choice out there and that it’s not an indictment of any system of education.

“I don’t hate government schools, and we’re not trying to overthrow the system,” said Allison. “We’re just trying to be helpful.”

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