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.

Charter Schools Under Major Legislative Attack this Session

This legislative session a number of high-profile bills dealing with various aspects of public charter schools have been introduced. When the body of that legislation is considered as a whole, the direction it attempts to move Louisiana is clear – away from CABL’s goal of providing meaningful options to parents, students and taxpayers who feel that their local school districts are not providing the quality of education they desire.

From CABL’s perspective they fall into three major categories:

BESE Approval of Charter Schools

This year there are several bills that seek to limit BESE’s ability to authorize charter schools over the objections of local school boards. All of these bills are basically attempts to put the desires of school boards above the needs of the students they are there to serve.

Those bills getting the most attention generally prohibit BESE from approving a charter school in an “A” or “B” school district when the school board has already denied the request. The suggestion there is that parental options for a better quality education are unnecessary if the school district receives an “A” or “B” grade. The facts strongly show otherwise.

Louisiana has 40 “A” and “B” school districts and within those districts are 124 schools with a letter grade of “D” or “F.” That is a significant number of low-performing schools in districts that are deemed to be high-performing.

But the problem is even deeper. Louisiana’s “A” and “B” school districts also have 201 “C”’ rated schools. A “C” school may seem modestly okay – average – but these schools mask some real issues for children. In Louisiana, a full third of the students in “C” elementary schools read below the minimum “basic” skills level. Another third read only at the minimum level. The situation is even worse when it comes to math.

What that means is that most of the young students in “C” schools are not learning language or math skills at the level that is considered proficient by the rest of the nation, nor are they grasping what they need to fully succeed in the next grade. This tells us is that in Louisiana there are many thousands ofchildren who may reside in “A” or “B” school districts, but who are not getting the education they need to succeed. They and their parents need choices too.

For-Profit Charter School Operators

There is also legislation in the governor’s education package to prohibit charter schools from contracting with a for-profit entity to manage or operate a public charter school. On the face of things, this might seem to be an appealing concept, but it fails to take into account several realities involving both charter schools and the nature of public education in general.

The first is that every charter school is overseen by a nonprofit board of community volunteers who are responsible for the success of their schools. The fact that in some cases they choose to contract with a for-profit provider to operate the school or run back office operations should be of no consequence. The truth is that public schools in districts across the state already contract with a wide variety of for-profit vendors to provide needed services. It is part of the normal course of delivering public education.

In fact, the list of for-profit vendors enlisted by some public schools is almost endless. They include things such as food service, janitorial service, garbage collection, curriculum development, tests, textbooks and computers. They are also used to provide assistance in areas such as specialized testing, helping special needs students on an individualized basis, and tutoring.

It is also worth noting that some of the for-profit charter schools have developed business models that allow them to build brand new school buildings, sometimes in districts that have not seen a new school building in decades. And despite their for-profit status, many also have waiting lists of students whose parents want to enroll them in these schools.

That, in and of itself, speaks to the continuing demand for a wider variety of educational choices in many parts of the state. It is inappropriate for the government to limit the types of vendors charter schools can contract with to deliver a quality education just as it is to deny school districts the flexibility to obtain the outside services they need. The issue should not be about what entity delivers a high-quality education to students, but rather, if they are succeeding in doing that. 

Charter School Funding

It should be noted that there are also a number of additional bills this session that deal with money issues surrounding charter schools. They take a variety of approaches, but generally they all represent attacks on charter schools which are mostly intended to decrease their funding and ultimately make it more difficult for them to succeed.

From CABL’s perspective this is unfortunate. The purpose of public education is to educate children. Limiting the avenues to do that and constructing barriers that take away options from parents is counterproductive. Charter schools should continue to be accountable for results and face consequences if they fail to perform. But their financial resources should not be withdrawn because some feel threatened by the fact that a great many of them actually succeed.

In summary, charter schools bring something unique to public education. They have the freedom and autonomy to do different things and make decisions in the best interests of children. They also bring a degree of competition into the education arena that can only be a positive for students.

School districts portray charter schools as entities that are taking both state and local dollars away from them. But it is important to remember that the children that attend charter schools are citizens of the state and the parish where they attend school. Their parents’ state and local tax dollars are going to support a local school. The teachers who receive their salaries are public school teachers.

In short, charter schools are all a part of Louisiana’s public education system. They offer additional options for parents and students who often have no other options. It is CABL’s belief that charter schools be approved or rejected – and then stand or fall – based on their merits, their outcomes and what they can do to help children attain a quality education.

That is why it is regrettable that many of the legislative initiatives this session seek to undermine charter schools and stifle educational options for Louisiana families. Charter schools need to be held accountable for results, but they should not be denied the opportunity to succeed.

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