School choice. Two words brought up frequently in Louisiana among politicians in discussions about how to improve our state’s educational system. They are also two words that arouse curiosity in parents when considering decisions for their families. But what does “school choice” really mean? Many may think of school vouchers, magnet programs, homeschooling, and private schools when considering educational options. East Baton Rouge Parish has, for the last decade, offered parents another option: charter schools. While most are familiar with the traditional public school—the ones students attend based on residence—confusion remains about how a charter school is different from a neighborhood school, and what the pros and cons are of our area’s current charter schools. We wanted to shed some light on this oft-misunderstood choice.
What is a Charter School Anyway?
About 20 percent of the East Baton Rouge Public School System’s 42,000 enrolled students choose to attend a magnet program or a charter school as opposed to the traditional public school. Charter schools are public schools, which means students attend them free of tuition, but they operate independently of the parish school system. Instead, a non-profit board which represents a corporation or some other entity, enters into a contract—or charter—with the state. Since charter schools are publically funded, Louisiana has laws providing for the minimum requirements a proposed charter school must meet before being approved for operation. The Louisiana Department of Education defines any charter school functioning in this state as an independent public school that provides a program of elementary and/or secondary education to provide a learning environment that will improve pupil achievement.
Choice. According to the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools (LAPCS), more than 78,000 students attend 147 charter schools in 25 parishes across Louisiana for the current 2017-2018 school year. East Baton Rouge Parish School System prides itself on allowing parents to select where their child attends instead of being assigned a school based on where they live. And since they are funded by state and local taxes, charter schools are considered public schools and cost nothing to attend.
Flexibility. At their core, every charter school is created to serve as an innovative and independent public school for the students in Louisiana. Charter schools are largely free to decide their own curriculum, teaching materials, and instructional methods. Inspire Charter Academy of Baton Rouge, one of more than 70 schools managed by National Heritage Academies across the nation, makes morality an integral part of their curriculum with gratitude, self-control, and compassion serving as central themes. For Children’s Charter School, early literacy and technology remain focuses. The school houses iPads at a ratio of one device for every two students in kindergarten through the second grade while every student in third, fourth, and fifth grade has a device to use in the classroom. The school also boasts a digital library so that students have access to quality reading material whether they are at school, at home, or on the road.
Louisiana’s Charter School Law also expresses that charter schools should have in mind the best interests of at-risk pupils. Generally, a student deemed “at-risk” is eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced lunch program, or is two or more grade levels behind in reading achievement. Heeding the legislature’s call to serve those students most in need, THRIVE opened in 2011 and remains the only free, public boarding school in the state. There are fewer than 10 of these public residential schools in the nation. Meant to serve Baton Rouge’s disadvantaged students in grades 6-12, THRIVE offers its students the opportunity to not only learn in a safe environment, but to perform everyday household duties such as preparing meals and cleaning laundry.
Accountability. While charter schools currently operating in Baton Rouge enjoy more freedom in making instructional decisions than those operating as part of the East Baton Rouge School System (EBRPSS), they are still accountable to either the local school district or the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), depending on which type of charter school is being created (there are five types, categorized by such things as location). Regardless of the type of charter school a non-profit group is hoping to open, all charter schools are required to administer the same state assessments that students in traditional public schools are required to take. To receive an extension to operate for each additional school year, a charter school must meet student performance growth standards, as well as operate within an approved budget. This means that parents can see a report card and a School Performance Score for charter schools, just as they would any traditional public school.
Accountability. While the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) insists that charter schools that underperform will be closed, that seems to provide little reassurance to parents and students in EBR. Democracy Prep, one of Baton Rouge’s charter schools, does not teach either the fourth or the eighth grades. Since these are the grades in which Louisiana mandates students achieve proficiency on a high-stakes test, Democracy Prep’s school rating of a “C” is skewed. Upon further inspection, the school received very low marks from the state for having a 38 percent suspension rate among its student population, having high transfer rate during the year, and failure to re-enroll students from year to year.
A performance review of the seven other charter schools listed on the EBRPSS website reveals that things don’t get much better elsewhere; only CSAL and Mentorship STEAM have progressively earned their “B” score. By comparison, over the last five school years, Children’s Charter received four “D”s and one “F” while Inspire has received straight “D”s, an improvement from the 2011 and 2012 school years where the school earned an “F”. Documents provided by the LDOE and EBRPSS fail to address why so many underperforming schools can continue operating with public funds.
School as a Business. Although they require authorization from EBRPSS or BESE to operate, charter schools run independently of the school district. Each charter school is governed by a Board of Directors, usually composed of educators, parents, and other members of the community. While any group looking to open a charter school must be classified as a non-profit organization, Louisiana laws provide for for-profit businesses to be heavily involved with a charter school. Businesses can become Corporate Sponsors by donating large amounts of land, technology, or funds for renovations. In return, up to 50 percent of the seats at the charter school can be reserved for the Corporate Sponsor employees, and the business benefits from a minority percentage of the seats of the governing board.
Historically, the three aims of a public education have been personal, civic, and economic. While charter schools are bound by oversight, charter schools financed by businesses can prove to have different educational goals for students than those generally declared for traditional public schools. Most charter schools will note on their webpages that they apply a “business model” to schools. There is no scholarly research in the field of education to indicate that a business model is appropriate or effective for public schools.
Find Out More. Now is the time for parents to inquire about EBR’s current and soon-to-be-opened charter schools, as most begin taking applications in January. Andrea O’ Konski, Chief of Accountability, Assessment, & Evaluation for EBRPSS notes that four new charter schools will open in August 2018: IDEA Charter, Inspire NOLA (separate from EBR’s current Inspire charter), The Emerge Center School, and BASIS Charter. More information about area schools can be found by visiting ebrpss.org. Information about school performance can be found at louisianabelieves.com. ■