School choice empowers students and parents, demands results

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Dear Editor,

As we start another year, I challenge the parents and community leaders of this state to unite to overcome the obstacles that remain in the path of our children having access to the best possible public schools.

School choice options continue to expand across the state. There are traditional schools, charter schools that are completely “virtual,” public military academies, language-immersion charters.

In Louisiana, nearly 60,000 students now attend one of 117 public charter schools across 19 parishes. We have one of the strongest public charter school laws in the country, rated sixth best by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

Another 118 private schools now offer “scholarships” to low-income families across Louisiana, giving families a completely new choice about where to send their children.

Whether charter, voucher, traditional, private, online or homeschooled, all these choices add up to two words: Parent Power.

Is our public education system perfect? Not yet by a long shot. But it is better. The Center for Research and Education Outcomes confirmed this year that Louisiana charter schools are among the top five in the nation in measures of student academic growth. We are getting something right!

If a charter school does not meet parents’ expectations, they will choose to send their child to a different school. If a charter school does not meet its authorizer’s expectations, it will be closed.

Year after year, our state ranks in the bottom five states in the country for reading and math scores at any grade. That’s why the “choice” movement bloomed in our state: Parents decided to take things in their own hands. Taxpayers wanted a better return on their investment. Policy makers were forced to act.

The law of Louisiana now empowers you, the parent or community leader, to forge new paths for education options in this state. Charter schools are just one example. The larger concept is “school choice,” all kinds of educational options to suit your child.

Several school boards in the state have recognized the opportunity to diversify the types of schools they have in their district and are authorizing charter schools. This year, 170 new parent, business and civic leaders trained through our programs so they could volunteer to be on a charter school board.

Charter schools, which are independent public schools governed by a local nonprofit, volunteer board do not operate within the traditional school bureaucracy. Instead they are given greater autonomy and flexibility on such decisions as hiring, budgets, and professional development, while also having to meet specific academic, financial and legal criteria or risk being closed.

Running a school is a huge responsibility. That’s why a rigorous and balanced charter application process is so important, and why Louisiana worked so hard to develop a fair, transparent method to appeal to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education when a local school board ignores parents and fails to act.

There are a number of steps one must accomplish before even beginning to consider applying to open a charter school, such as forming a non-profit governing board, raising funds and developing the charter proposal. Training for the developing charter board is essential. The application process is strict and difficult, with good reason – budgetary issues cause more charter schools to close than academic shortcomings. The board must have a crystal clear vision of how every facet within the school will operate.

The Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools has developed the “Apply Yourself” program to help people fulfill their dream of opening a charter school. I strongly encourage any local educator, advocate or community member to participate. Know what’s expected of you if you’re considering starting a charter school.

We need Louisianans to take advantage of the reforms passed by the state to improve schools and free our educators to teach.

Louisiana deserves the best. Your child deserves it. But we need you to help get us there. Apply yourself.

Caroline Roemer Shirley,

Executive Director, Louisiana Association

of Public Charter Schools