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New Orleans charter schools
Jacob Landry stands in front of Lusher Charter School’s lower campus. Landry is seeking the name of the admissions test the school asks some prospective kindergarten students to take which factors into admission. Lusher, located in New Orleans, is one of a handful of selective admission charter schools in the country.

In addition to being one of the focuses of nationwide charter school efforts, New Orleans also is remarkable for having selective-admissions charters.

Three such schools in the city were top-performing magnet schools in the traditional system before the major charter push happened after Hurricane Katrina. They maintained their high standards when they became charters, and they continue to post some of the top scores in the state.

In a city where private-school tuition rivals college costs, gaining admission to these free public schools is like finding the golden ticket.

But these high-performing schools are still public, and now, two are at odds with a parent seeking basic information.

Related: The graduation rates from every school district, in one map

Administrators at two schools are refusing to release the names of the tests they use in admissions, and, at one school leader’s request, the state attorney general is expected to issue an opinion on the matter soon.

Jacob Landry has a soon-to-be kindergartner, and he wants to know just the name of the test, not the questions on it or other secure information. He penned a column on his experience seeking the test’s name that ran on The Lens on June 9. As a former employee of the Louisiana Department of Education, he said he wants to know if the test being used is appropriate for admissions, and to make sure that it’s not an IQ test, which is forbidden by state law.

“People want their kids to get into those schools,” Landry said. “For me it was look, I’ve got the experience in charter schools to know what to ask.”

“In a city where private-school tuition rivals college costs, gaining admission to these free public schools is like finding the golden ticket.”

And yes, Landry’s son took the test for Lusher and was put on the waitlist. Still, Landry said this isn’t about sour grapes, but about transparency and oversight of charters. He didn’t ask for the name of the test until after his son took it, and his son has since won admission at a well-regarded new charter that doesn’t have an admissions test.

For their part, the leaders of Lusher Charter School and Lake Forest Elementary Charter School say that motivated, involved parents could gain an unfair advantage over others if they know what exam is given.

“Even if we don’t provide you with test questions and answer keys, if prospective parents know the name of the test, they might be able to access the test that is used year after year,” Lusher CEO Kathy Riedlinger told Landry in an email.

Landry’s response: “If knowing the name of an assessment gives you an advantage in an admissions process, it’s a terrible admissions process.”

National charter and testing experts expressed support for both sides.

A rare kind of charter

Only a handful of selective-admission charter schools exist in the country. These are schools that are publicly funded, governed by their own boards which aren’t elected, and set their own entrance criteria. That can include a combination of test scores, attendance at open houses, student interviews and more.

Just four states have laws that explicitly permit selective charter schools: Florida, New Hampshire, Texas and Louisiana, said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Some other states, such as Delaware, have broadly written laws that allows charters to establish preferences and their own criteria for determining which students best match those preferences.

Related: What we can learn from the Katrina children who thrived after disaster

Even so, most charter operators don’t go that route, Ziebarth said, which is just fine with him.

He knows of just one other selective-admission charter school in the country outside New Orleans.

“Our position is that public charter schools should not be allowed to have selective-admission requirements,” Ziebarth said. “They should be open to any child who wants to attend them.”

And he comes down on the side of Landry regarding the release of the test name.

“The lack of transparency there runs counter to what we see in charters just about everywhere else,” he said.

Selective charters in high demand

In a city where some parents start to worry about schools when their kids are still in diapers, the selective-admissions charters are quite attractive. They have perennially high test results, and their high-school graduates are accepted into top-shelf universities across the country. And they’re free.

With some private-school tuition in the area approaching $20,000 a year, getting into one of the selective charters is the same as a modest win in the Lotto.

The free alternatives in the city are the nearly 70 other charters plus a handful of traditional schools. Anyone can apply to any school in the city. Nearly half of those schools have D or F grades, though others are showing steady improvement. At sought-after schools, a lottery is held for placement if they get more applicants than openings.

Other magnet schools existed under the pre-Katrina Orleans Parish School Board, but they jettisoned the selective admissions requirement when they became charters.

The third selective charter school in the city is Benjamin Franklin High School, which is open about using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to gauge students. Duris Holmes, chairman of the Ben Franklin board, said he’s not concerned about anyone gaining an unfair advantage because the school uses different versions of the test.

Franklin and Lusher, and other magnets to a lesser degree, were the targets of frustration and ire in the late 1990’s, which led to an investigation of racial-bias allegations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. As a result, the school district replaced IQ tests with the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. It did away with first-come, first-served enrollment, which caused parents to camp for days outside desirable schools, and introduced lotteries instead.

All that happened under the direct supervision of the Orleans Parish School Board. Now charters operate independently, with periodic evaluations from their authorizing agencies, such as the School Board or the state.

Although the state’s Recovery School District and many School Board campuses have agreed to participate in a common enrollment process, it’s not mandatory yet, and the selective-admissions schools and a handful of others don’t take part.

A man on a mission

When Landry applied to get his son into Lusher, he knew he was not in the relatively small neighborhood district ensures admission without testing. So his son was given an exam that helped determine his eligibility.

After his son was waitlisted, he asked the school what test it uses.

CEO Kathy Riedlinger told him that the information is confidential. He continued to push, leading Lusher to seek an opinion from the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office about whether it must reveal the name under the state’s Public Records Law.

In her letter, Riedlinger told the attorney general that that Landry asked for “information concerning the entrance exam.” She cited an exception to the state law that shields “testing instruments” administered by the state, as well as answers or student scores for those tests.

“If the admissions exam does not fall under the above referenced exemptions, then virtually all tests given in Louisiana primary and secondary schools would be subject to the Public Records Act,” Riedlinger wrote. “For example, a parent could use the Public Records Act to request a copy of his or her child’s biology exam before it is administered.”

Landry said he just wants to know the name of Lusher’s test, not what’s in it.

This would allow him to verify that the school is not using an IQ test, which is prohibited by the state board of education and was banned by the Orleans Parish School Board in 1998. He also could check with the testing company to see if it’s supposed to be used for admissions.

“It’s not about Lusher,” he said. “It’s about charter school oversight and whether it’s being done properly.”

In a column published on The Lens and circulated widely, Landry wrote that the admissions process at these schools is still unfair.

“What with admissions tests, multiple mandatory meetings and in-person delivery of applications, it is small wonder why fewer than 50 percent of students at Lusher are minorities, and why only 21 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged. By contrast, 98 percent of RSD [the state Recovery School District] students in New Orleans are minorities, and 92 percent are economically disadvantaged.”

Landry’s column has sparked fierce debate about whether some schools should be allowed to pick their students and if New Orleans children have equal access to a quality education.

Riedlinger said the school’s admissions process has been approved by the School Board. However, that approval apparently doesn’t include the test itself. Landry said he is particularly concerned that Lusher’s test is not named in the school’s contract with the district.

“Because we respect their autonomy, we do not know the name of the test,” Orleans Parish School Board spokesman Matt Broussard said. He said that’s true of all admissions tests used by selective charter schools in the district.

Lake Forest, which is overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board, also requires an admissions test. CEO Mardele Early would not tell The Lens what it is.

“Releasing the test name compromises test security and allows some potential applicants to have an unfair advantage,” Early said in an email.

She said she will abide by whatever the Attorney General’s Office advises Lusher.

Test-security expert James Wollack said Riedlinger could have a valid concern.

“For all we know, it could be something freely available,” he said.

If so, “knowing the name provides potentially some individuals the opportunity to track down a copy of the test,” said Wollack, an associate professor of educational psychology and the director of testing and evaluation services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On the flip side, though, without knowing the name of the test, Wollack said, it’s hard for anyone to know if Lusher is using a valid method to decide who gets in.

“It’s about what that thing measures and how well it’s working for the intended purpose,” he said.

During an interview in mid June, The Lens asked Riedlinger if she could provide information showing that the test is valid. She said she could contact the testing company to get it. The Lens contacted Riedlinger again on July 7, her auto-reply ‘out of office’ email said the school would be closed until Aug 1. The schools public relations staff was also on vacation.

This story was produced in partnership with The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

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