Charter Schools in Louisiana
By Valerie Comeaux, PhD
School choice. These two words are brought up frequently in Louisiana among politicians in discussions about how to improve our state’s educational system. But what does “school choice” really mean? The term is used to represent a family’s decision to send their child to their zoned neighborhood school or pay tuition to a private institution. For the last decade, however, parents have seen more options become available when considering schools for their child.
Choosing Charter Schools
More than 70,000 students attend 148 charter schools across Louisiana for the current 2016-17 school year. While most are familiar with the traditional public school—the ones students attend based on residence—confusion remains about exactly what a charter school is.
Charter schools are public schools, which means students attend charter schools free of tuition. Since charter schools are publicly 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 student achievement.
Freedom and Innovation
At their core, every charter school is created to serve as an innovative and independent public school for the students in Louisiana. Because they are run by nonprofit organizations and not the school system, 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 provides 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.
In addition to providing innovative approaches to education, Louisiana’s Charter School Law 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 washing laundry.
While charter schools currently operating in Baton Rouge enjoy more freedom in making instructional decisions than those operating as part of the 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 rigorous 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.
Running the Show
Parents, Teachers, Businesses
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 dependents of the Corporate Sponsor employees, and the business benefits from a minority percentage of the seats of the governing board.
Charter schools have developed into a viable and appealing option for parents. Charter schools allow for the use of innovative and creative methodologies that fit the needs of the community. Since they are public schools, no child pays tuition to attend a charter school. But while charter schools are bound by oversight from the district or state, charter schools financed by businesses can prove to have different educational goals for students than those generally declared for traditional public schools. Just like any educational decision, good research by the parent is a requirement before enrolling their child. ■