Tangipahoa Parish School Board’s attacks on Tangi Academy hurts students & families

This op-ed by Caroline Roemer was published in the printed July 1 issue of The Daily Star in Hammond.

Since the Louisiana Charter School Law was first enacted in 1995, school boards have often viewed charter schools as “competition” rather than an opportunity — an attitude that comes at the expense of their constituents. Tangipahoa Parish School Board (TPSB)’s treatment of Tangi Academy, a public charter school in the parish, is a perfect example of such thinking. Rather than considering charter schools a way to empower the community with educational choices, TPSB has chosen to battle with Tangi Academy over taxpayer money.

For years, TPSB refused to allow Tangi Academy to open as a public school of choice within its district. Instead, the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) approved the school in 2014 as a state-authorized charter, recognizing the potential educational opportunity for Tangipahoa students. The school opened last fall, and in its first year, Tangi Academy attracted over 200 families. A visit to the school shows a diverse community of students and teachers with an enthusiasm for the arts and learning.

Despite the community’s clear support of Tangi Academy, TPSB has challenged the school in court, claiming stake to Tangi’s funds. Unfortunately, a federal district judge ruled against Tangi, ordering the school to forfeit its entire local share of education funding from the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) to TPSB. This dealt the school a devastating blow — the funds in question represent over 25 percent of Tangi’s total budget, but less than one percent of TPSB’s. TPSB has since rejected all settlement attempts offered by Tangi Academy, resulting in a total forfeiture of $479,000 to date for the public charter school.

TPSB, like many other traditional school districts, insists that they should continue to receive funding for students they do not serve. They successfully argued before District Judge Ivan Lemelle that the opening of Tangi Academy and the alleged “loss” in funding for the district would hinder its ability to comply with its 60-year-old order to desegregate the system. Instead of reevaluating their budget and adjusting accordingly based on the funds received for their students, as any other responsible organization would do, TPSB blamed Tangi Academy for their budget and desegregation woes and stripped the school of the dollars needed to serve its students.

TPSB needs to recognize that MFP funds are taxpayer dollars that belong to the student, not to a school board or a school. No district is guaranteed dollars to operate its system, and it only receives funds for students actually enrolled. TPSB had multiple opportunities to keep Tangi’s students and their funds within its system when Tangi’s founders —a group of Tangipahoa parents — asked the district to authorize Tangi as a charter school. As the authorizer, TPSB would have received a two percent administrative fee from Tangi Academy and gained credit for the school’s academic results as part of the accountability system, all while providing their constituents and taxpayers with another public school option. But TPSB refused, rejecting Tangi’s charter application twice. Parents who wanted a choice in public education had no other choice but to ask the state to authorize Tangi Academy as an independent, Type 2 charter school.

As for the district’s complaints about the difficulties in complying with desegregation orders, here’s an idea: instead of taking money from Tangi students and families who are no longer part of TPSB, learn from them. Despite operating with a drastically smaller operating budget than they had planned for, Tangi Academy has met every desegregation requirement and has achieved a balanced at-risk and special education student population — an accomplishment that TPSB has struggled to achieve in many of its own schools for over the last half century.

In fact, Tangi Academy has attracted one of the most diverse student bodies in the parish: 68 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged; 14 percent receive special education services; and 48 percent are minority students. Parents and teachers alike praise the school for its success, which they achieved despite the difficulties pressed upon it by the selfish actions of the TPSB.

Tangi Academy will continue its work of educating their students, but moving forward will be difficult without the funds denied to them by TPSB. Those left to suffer are the very families that the school board pledges to serve – the taxpaying constituents of Tangipahoa Parish. And for TPSB to claim those families deserve less funding than their peers in the district’s system is discriminatory.

The school board already denied Tangipahoa parents the right to public school choice when it refused to approve Tangi Academy as a TPSB charter school. Now, they are hitting these families again by stripping money from Tangi’s teachers and students. It’s time that the TPSB be called out for its unsound and unfair practices. Tangi Academy students are Tangipahoa students, and they deserve 100 percent of their education funds, just like all other public schools in the parish.

— Caroline Roemer, Executive Director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools