Jim Beam column: School choice now top priority

Published 6:18 am Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Louisiana’s Legislature continues to reduce the role that public schools play in educating the state’s young people in favor of private, religious and charter schools.

Charter schools were the big winners at the recent legislative session, and  private and religious schools could eventually become the next major beneficiaries of legislative changes. The first charter schools in the state opened 30 years ago and there are now 145 of them that educate nearly 90,000 students statewide.

The Advocate in a news story said, “Education bills aim to transform every aspect of (the public) system.”

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The newspaper said Republican Gov. Jeff Landry and GOP lawmakers are changing the way schools are rated, hoping to soon give parents education funds they can use to select the schools their children attend and telling teachers what they can and can’t teach their students.

Janet Pope, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said, “These are major, sweeping changes. We’re not sure what to expect because we’re still building the plane while we’re flying it.”

The newspaper said the most ambitious and contentious bill would give parents public money to pay for private education. It puts tax dollars into education savings accounts that low-income families can spend on tuition, tutoring, textbooks or other education expenses.

Once lawmakers figure out how much that plan would cost, all families, regardless of income, could become eligible even if they are already paying tuition for private education.

Landry said, “Every parent in this state will have an opportunity, if they want, to send their child to a school other than the public school.”

The Advocate said powerful forces pushing the plan include business associations, school-choice groups, conservative think tanks, GOP donors and a majority of Louisiana voters.

An unlikely coalition opposes the plan, the newspaper said, including Democrats, some rural Republicans, traditional public schools and some charter schools. Critics said it would subsidize private education for well-off families while pulling students from public schools and funneling tax dollars into loosely regulated private schools.

Here is how charter schools, which are publicly funded, independently operated schools that are open to all students, benefited at the recent session:

—  Their enrollment requirements have been eased.

—   State and federal agencies can become charter school partners.

—   Schools are given extra time to renew their charters.

—   Charter schools have autonomy over their own curriculum and budgets.

—   Rules have been eased that require charter schools to enroll a certain percentage of low-income students and students with disabilities.

—   Initial proposals for charter schools with corporate partners will be able to bypass their local school boards and apply directly to the state Board of Elementary and  Secondary Education (BESE).

Sen. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, sponsored two charter changes. Edmonds praised the schools’ progress.

“As we look at how our charter schools are progressing, I think we’re on a good pattern. Many of our charter schools are excelling.”

Sen. Joseph Bouie Jr., D-New Orleans, and a former chancellor of Southern University in New Orleans and longtime public school advocate, expressed an opposing view in a column in The Advocate.

Bouie said New Orleans is the state’s only all-charter school district and more than 78% of all charter schools in Louisiana are located in just three of the state’s 69 school districts — Orleans, East Baton Rouge and Jefferson parishes. He said no other individual school district had more than four charter schools.

The state took control of New Orleans public schools in 2005 and Bouie said 63% of its children weren’t performing at grade level. After 19 years as an all-charter system, Bouie said 73% of its children aren’t performing at grade level.

Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans, said, “If we really want to continue moving the needle on public education in Louisiana, then we have to continue investing in public education in Louisiana — not diverting that money to send to private schools.”

None of that is going to change the minds of the governor and members of the Republican-controlled Legislature and the BESE board. They are in complete control and it’s full speed ahead.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than six decades. Contact him at 337-515-8871 or jim.beam.press@gmail.com.