Charter Schools Get Green Light

Charter schools are independently operated public schools, and they are being given high marks around the country. Supporters say that is because of the choice they give parents, the flexibility they enjoy and their accountability for the public funds they receive.

Minnesota paved the way 20 years ago when it opened the country’s first charter school. Louisiana joined the movement in 1995 with a pilot charter school program in eight school districts, and succeeding laws opened up the process.

Look for charter schools to grow rapidly in Louisiana now that the Legislature has made it easier to create this new network of public schools. The state currently has 100 charter schools in 15 parishes that are managed by nongovernmental agencies and private organizations. Lake Charles has two charter schools, both of them operated by Charter Schools USA.

Only six of the 100 charter schools in the state, including the two here, are operated by what are known as education management organizations. And education experts say that gives those six schools some distinct advantages.

Consider, for example, the beautiful new Lake Charles Charter Academy building located on Power Centre Parkway. The Southwest Louisiana Charter Academy will occupy another new school facility once it is constructed at Nelson and Ham Reid roads. Most charter schools are located in existing buildings, and that has proved to be a difficult transition in some parts of the state.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 accelerated the switch from governmentoperated to charter schools. New Orleans has the majority of charter schools because over 60 percent of the public schools there were failing prior to the storm. Those operated by the local School Board were in the lowest performing school district in the state.

Local school boards have been reluctant to approve charter schools because they siphon off tax revenues. However, changes in 1997 made it possible for charter schools to appeal to BESE if their applications were rejected at the local level. BESE has made it easier for organizations to get those charters. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform bill passed last spring opens up the chartering process. It allows state agencies and nonprofit corporations with an educational mission to be certified as charter authorizers. BESE is charged with monitoring and setting standards for those groups authorizing charter schools.

The theory behind sending public funds to charter schools is that the money should follow the child. That has been a sore point with many taxpayers who insist they approved the taxes that raised the money and don’t have a voice in how it is being spent. Supporters say charter schools are public schools and they can’t charge tuition. They also argue that legislators elected by those taxpayers did approve the use of those funds.

Jindal’s voucher system is different. It uses public funds to pay students’ tuition at nonpublic and parochial schools. The courts will determine the legality of the voucher system, but charters are becoming a permanent fixture on the national education scene. And many are getting high marks.

Lake Charles Charter Academy got off on the right foot when it hired one of the most competent educators in the Calcasieu Parish School System. Pam Quebodeaux, longtime principal at Dolby Elementary School, became the charter school’s first principal. She will also be principal for the new charter school that opened this year. Quebodeaux talked with the American Press about the school’s first year.

“We began addressing deficits in reading and math by providing after-school tutoring and daily interventions,” she said. “We also realized that our staff needed ongoing professional development in these key areas.”

Deborah Kenny, the founder of a five-school charter system in Harlem, wrote about the successes there in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

“Talented teachers don’t want to be told exactly what to do and how to do it,” she said. “So our schools get clear on objectives and get out of the way, allowing teachers to come up with their own ideas and to select whichever practices they think are best.”

Kenny added, “… It’s exciting to work with talented colleagues who believe enough in their own abilities that they are willing to be held accountable for student learning outcomes.”

The New Orleans charter system isn’t perfect, and some of its schools have had to be closed. However, some of the successful ones are opening up new opportunities for young people.

“Nearly 80 percent of students in New Orleans attend charter schools, and backers say many of those students have shown striking gains compared to their previous performance at other schools,” The Advocate said last week.

Charter schools are definitely here to stay, but policy makers and legislators mustn’t forget the public schools that educate most of Louisiana’s students. Competition will motivate them to do a better job, but their administrators, teachers and students deserve the same freedoms and opportunities that charter schools enjoy.

Local school boards, charter officials and the educators involved in both systems should never forget that it’s all about the children of this state, who deserve a better education that many of them have been getting.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].

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