The New Legislature and School Reform

There had been some question about how the new 2016 Legislature, bringing with it a number of new faces, would respond  to the onslaught of bills this session attacking many of the state’s most significant education reforms.

To some degree the question was understandable. The education committees in both the House and Senate were filled with a number of newly-elected members. Added to them were several veteran lawmakers who had never served on those committees and hadn’t developed the institutional knowledge that comes with hearing these often controversial bills week in and week out.

It’s perhaps still too early to get a clear read on these new panels, but the last couple of weeks seem to indicate that they lean towards being reform minded, particularly as it comes to school choice issues.

A case in point is that over the last two weeks there have been a number of bills going after charter schools from one angle or another. Some sought big changes, others were part of efforts to kill with a thousand cuts. What’s significant is that none of them succeeded in any kind of meaningful way.

And the one bill that did make it out of the Senate Education Committee is identical to a similar bill that had already been killed by the House committee, which doesn’t bode well for that one, either.  While these outcomes are extremely positive, they don’t necessarily indicate that all the other bad bills out there will suffer the same fate. But they do send a strong message.

The question of charter schools has been a contentious one in Louisiana for many years and that’s becoming even more the case as parents and citizens in various communities begin to demand more educational options for their children. As a result, charter schools are being portrayed by some as outsiders who are dropping into local districts and somehow trying to steal children from their schools. That’s pretty ridiculous.

The truth is that charter schools are public schools. They are operated with public dollars by nonprofit, volunteer citizen boards who must go through a rigorous process for approval. That is by no means easy. BESE turns down more charter school applications than it approves and then once they are given the green light, they have a limited time to show meaningful progress for students or run the risk of having their charter revoked.

What’s more important, though, is that they are as local and community-based as you can get. It’s parents, educators, business leaders and other civic-minded citizens of the district who come together to open a school because they don’t feel like their own local system is providing the options they believe students need. And they seem to be right as there has been strong demand for many of these schools and often long waiting lists.

Charter schools are no panacea, of course. Some fail and, indeed, BESE has revoked charters at a number of schools that weren’t doing the job. But the truth, as has been exhibited in New Orleans, is that many charter schools are succeeding and they are bringing students to academic levels many would have believed was impossible – which makes much of the committee testimony in this year’s charter school debate all the more disconcerting.

On the one hand, you hear passionate parents talking about the successes their children have seen in some charter schools and that without them they would have had no other options for their child. On the other, you hear school districts concerned that if charter schools come into their area they would take “their” students away and lose money. Charter schools don’t take anyone away. Parents voluntarily choose to send their kids there.

It should be pointed out that even after all these years, charter school enrollment in Louisiana still makes up only a fraction of the total student population. When you take New Orleans out of the mix, which is in a special circumstance and made up of nearly all charter schools, the statewide impact is even smaller.

So it’s hard to understand how this relatively small number of public charter schools, formed by concerned local citizens, are such a threat to the hundreds of traditional public schools across the state. They’re not, of course, unless they are providing a product that school districts just don’t feel like they can compete against.