Looking Back on Two Decades of Charter Schools

LAPCS Executive Director Caroline Roemer pens a column in the Baton Rouge Business Report looking back on 20 years of charter schools in Louisiana.

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The year 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Louisiana charter school law, and what a 20 years it has been.

Since being signed into law by former Gov. Mike Foster as a pilot program in 1995, the Louisiana charter school community has grown to almost 140 charter schools serving approximately 80,000 students in 21 parishes across the state.

This movement has become intimately ingrained into our local communities as more than 1,000 community members—from retired teachers to lawyers, from accountants to parents—have volunteered to serve on these nonprofit charter school boards and share their expertise to improve public education.

Over the years, our charter school law has been revisited and strengthened several times by the Louisiana Legislature, creating an environment that provides not only multiple public school options for families, but multiple pathways for charter schools to open.

At the same time, charter schools are held to high standards with real consequences for failing to meet the standards. The idea has never been to let just anyone open a charter school. Instead, the state has built a process that awards charters to only the best applicants and then holds them accountable for delivering results. And if they don’t deliver, they can no longer operate the school.

Our strong approach to charter school authorization and accountability has led to Louisiana’s charter law being ranked second in the country by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, with many states now trying to follow our lead. But more important than rankings, charter schools in Louisiana have become a way to empower parents with educational choices and increase their engagement with the public education system in their communities. Parents are voting with their feet, choosing schools—either charter or traditional—that offer the right fit for their children and meet their unique needs.

Yet, as charter schools have gained momentum over the last two decades and have become the new norm for families, we see today a very intentional effort by a handful of special interest groups to jeopardize the future of charter schools. The strategy of these charter opponents are clear: Limit who can authorize charters, cut off funding and limit access to facilities.

It’s a simple but potentially devastating strategy. If a charter school can’t get authorized, then there is no charter school. If a charter school can’t get funded, then there is no charter school. If a charter school can’t find a place to teach students, then there is no charter school.

Thus far, efforts from charter opponents have not panned out. Instead, legislators, members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and even judges have focused on expanding education options, allowing public dollars to follow students no matter which public school they choose to attend, and setting strict accountability measures. This strategy allows parents, principals and teachers to make decisions as close to their children and classrooms as possible, better ensuring that each child receives an education that’s customized to meet his or her needs.

The results of this work are on display in New Orleans, where more than 90% of its students attend charter schools. The Recovery School District in New Orleans, the only all-charter district in America, has seen remarkable gains in academic performance for its students at a rate never seen before in Louisiana—nor in any other district in the country. From high school graduation rates to standardized test scores, New Orleans students are doing better academically, demonstrating what’s possible. And I can’t help but think that what is happening in New Orleans is what legislators hoped for 20 years ago in creating our charter law, to help schools be more innovative and re-imagine how we can better serve students.

This isn’t to say that charter schools are the answer to every issue we face in public education. In many ways, Louisiana charters face challenges that are no different than the ones faced by traditional district schools: All schools are looking for great teachers in the classroom, an increase in Minimum Foundation Program funding from the state, and ways to personalize learning for every student.

As we mark 20 years of charter school law and look ahead to the future, I challenge education advocates to rally around these common issues, and ultimately, to focus on improving high quality public school options, whether they are charter or traditional district schools.

All families should have access to a great school that works for their children, and we shouldn’t accept anything less than that as our vision for the future of public education in Louisiana.