Groundbreaking Louisiana legislation has led to a boom in new charter school applications across the state.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) received 49 charter school applications in 2012, 26 of which were for new charters, more than five times the 2011 number.
The jump in applications follows the passage this past spring of Act 2, which allows people in failing school districts who wish to start a charter school to apply directly to BESE, bypassing school board approval. A streamlined approval process, announced in August, is expected to further expand charter school options among Louisiana districts.
“It’s consistent with where the state has been going,” said Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Education Options and a former charter schools director for the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE). “A lot of people see an opportunity to really take responsibility for educating children. A lot of people have ideas, a process, a way to do things that is more successful.”
Charter schools are public schools given structural and regulatory freedom in exchange for sanctions and closure if their students do not perform well. Forty-one states allow charter schools.
Focusing applications on academically struggling districts and letting some applicants bypass the local school board has driven the application increase, said Sarah Baird, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. School boards have strong reasons to deny potential competitors access to students despite parent wishes.
Previously, a school board had to deny a charter request before its sponsors could apply to BESE. Now, potential charter operators in any district receiving a “D” or “F” grade from the state based on academic performance can go straight to BESE.
“We expect to see an increase in educational leaders stepping up and demanding alternative options for their students,” Baird said.
The state’s role has been transformed under state Superintendent John White, said Neerav Kingsland, chief strategy officer at New Schools New Orleans, a charter support nonprofit.
“Government’s gone from being an inhibitor to a partner in opening great schools,” Kingsland said.
Kingsland says he expects to see replications of New Orleans’ charter success in Baton Rouge and Jefferson County in the next three to five years.
“We want to replicate what happened in New Orleans across the state,” Kingsland said. “We don’t want this to be a Katrina-only story. This is what happens when you hand back power to local schools.”
Attracting Quality School Leaders
“The tension between maintaining quality and stifling innovation is a really tricky one in charter land,” Kingsland said. “You can go too far in opening and have a lot of schools underperform, and you can also go too tight and only the best schools are opening.”
With a speedier process and fewer regulations, local authorizers are requiring charters to meet rigorous criteria prior to approval.
The new process requires applicants to detail how they will run their school’s finances, curriculum, and operations, Baird said.
“While the charter application process has been streamlined, it in no way has it become easier,” Baird said. “Running a successful charter school is extremely difficult.”
LDOE contracts with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to conduct a third-party applicant review. NACSA brings in charter school experts from around the country to review applications and conduct “intense” interviews to help determine if applicants have the capacity and experience necessary to drive school success, she said.
Need for More, Better Choices
The state’s goal of attracting high-quality charter operators is being met, said LDOE spokesman Barry Landry.
“This is the first year that we’re accepting nominations from people who would like to serve as reviewers during the application process,” Landry noted. The state also adopted a single charter school application form and approval timeline for the first time. They go into effect in fall 2013.
Although Campbell considers focusing on struggling districts “essential,” he says suburban areas also need more education options.
“We need to have options for parents wherever possible, wherever needed,” Campbell said. “We need to be pushing the envelope on innovation and creative problem-solving in places around the state.”
Image by David Ruderman, USAG Vicenza Public Affairs Office.