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Up Close with Charter Schools : Louisiana

I have a confession. My kids attend a charter school. And… we love it! However, I was not always a believer in the charter school option. In fact, I still think choosing the right school for your child is a personal choice for parents, but I am glad to have more choices for Baton Rouge students.

“Charter schools have had a deep impact on education in Louisiana,” shared Adam Gordon with the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators. “They have become a major part of the educational sphere. But support is mixed.”

What is a Charter School?

“Charter schools are public, tuition-free schools open to all, “explained Zoey Reed with the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. “Our schools offer more opportunities for personal attention, creativity, and passionate teaching that kids need to learn and grow. Charter schools are able to build specialized programs and classes inspired by their students and their unique needs.”

Instead of being run by the local governing board, charter schools are run by non-profit boards. Charter schools receive the same amount of funding from state, local, and federal governments that public schools receive. This amount of money is called the MFP (Minimum Foundation Program) and, in East Baton Rouge parish is about $11,000 per student. Students who require more resources, such as special education, can qualify for additional federal funds.

How do Charter Schools Exist?

“The first charter opened in 1992 in Minnesota, “shared Gordon. “The intention of charters was to provide a laboratory to test the best ideas in education and share it with all schools. This has certainly been the case, but over time charters have developed a different purpose- to put pressure on other schools to perform better. By creating a marketplace of schools: traditional, charter, private, each with different visions and focuses- some on language, some on STEM, some on arts, some on high academic performance- advocates believe this will put pressure on struggling schools to do better. In theory, parents will choose the best schools and struggling schools will be forced to improve to survive.”

To exist in Baton Rouge, charter school organizations must apply for a charter. “Charter school students take the same tests as public school students and the schools are held to the same letter grades,” reported New Schools for Baton Rouge (NSBR) CEO Chris Meyer. “If the charter school doesn’t perform well after three years, it can be closed.” Meyer compared the charter school thrive to survive strategy with that of schools run by the local school board. “The East Baton Rouge Parish D and F schools are sometimes half full. One failing school, that had been failing for years, was provided with a new, $22 million building! That’s not accountability. Charter schools may not be the silver bullet, but they are an opportunity to expand choices to families and staff in a mission-guided way. Charter schools have clear accountability and the information is available to the public.”

What are the Benefits of Charter Schools?

The organization New Schools for Baton Rouge has been at the forefront of bringing charter schools to the Baton Rouge area. Meyer shared why he believes this work is important, “Charter schools can provide nimbleness in response to staff and student needs that you just can’t get with a 40,000+ student school system. Charters are able to consolidate and free up resources that can be used to address dire student and staffing needs.”

Both Reed and Meyer pointed out that, during the pandemic, the Baton Rouge charter schools were the first to expand their food program to serve students and families, to get technology into the hands of students, and to provide virtual learning platforms.

What are the Myths vs Realities of Charter Schools?

Myth 1: Charter schools are in the education business to make money. In reality, charter schools receive the same dollar amount per student as public schools. If a student leaves one school to attend another, the money follows the student. However, charter schools are allowed to choose where to spend their money. For example, in the public school system, teachers are paid based on their years of experience and level of education whereas in a charter school, teachers can be paid differently depending on the demand of the teacher’s area of expertise, effectiveness, and other factors.

Myth 2: Charter schools hand-pick their students. In reality, “Unlike traditional schools, charter admissions are open to all zip codes, and parents can visit charter schools around the city and make the choice based on what's best for their child,” reported Reed. “By law, charter schools are open to all students. Charter schools may not discriminate based on ability, test scores, income, race, etc. Charter schools strengthen our public school system by ensuring that parents have more public school options that meet the individual needs of their children.”

What do Charter School Parents Think?

Local mom Sarah T. shared her thoughts, “From my point of view, charters are a great option for this area since there are not enough magnet schools and good public schools for all of the kids. Not everyone belongs to a church, or necessarily wants their kids to attend a private school or one associated with a church. I like that my child attends a public charter. There is also more diversity than you’d typically see in a private setting.”

Does Everyone Love Charter Schools?

Charter schools, though they’ve been in the Baton Rouge area for a while now, haven’t won the hearts of everyone. One local teacher, Ben Scott shared, “My experience has proven that charter schools are too good to be true.” Scott took a $7,000 a year pay cut to work in a Baton Rouge charter school, leaving a position in a public school. Scott explained that the school hired teachers promising a large teacher bonus at the end of the school year, but the end bonus was about a quarter of what was promised. Scott also had doubts about the credentials of people hired to work at charter schools, including teachers.

Should I choose a Charter School?

“School provides more than just objective academic experiences – they create a relationship with the family and child,” pointed out Gordon. “One family may love their charter another while may not, it all comes down to what the family wants and what the school provides. Ultimately, you should seek a school that aligns to what you want to be true for your child. Think about academic support, behavior support, and the school’s focus like French, STEM, aviation, or anything you value.

At the end of the day, educators come into the profession with a desire to support students. Regardless of where they stand on the charter school debate, parents, teachers, and administrators want what is best for their students.”

Published in Baton Rouge Parents Magazine.


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