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Parent trigger use warns complacent school boards

A move to institute a charter school in East Feliciana parish shows how far the educational reform ethos has come in Louisiana and the tension it continues to introduce between families and interests backing traditional state-monopoly schools.

Last week, the process began for the conversion of Slaughter Elementary School, a traditional government-run school, into a charter school. It involved an enhanced use of the “parent trigger,” which allows families to wrest a public school from local governance and have it run by a nonprofit entity, contracted either to the local district or with the state.

When Louisiana conducted a massive overhaul of its educational system in the direction of school choice in 2012, the dramatic changes overshadowed parent trigger provisions included. And what little publicity these received focused on parents’ ability on their own to convert low-performing schools in R.S. 17:10.5.

But this joined an existing provision to allow conversion of any school, regardless of its performance in R.S. 17:3973. This version additionally requires the consent of the school’s staff as well; majorities of both families and employees must approve to have the district consider contracting as a Type 3 school. If the school board (as happens roughly three-quarters of the time for all charter applications) rejects the deal, then the desired operator could contract with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as a Type 2 school.

Parents and staff intend for the operator of the school into which Slaughter Elementary feeds, Slaughter Community Charter School, to take over. Both schools earn the adjusted grade of “B.” While the East Feliciana School Board could turn down the application, it would lose financial control of the school, which draws about 30 percent of all state funding going into the district, and could not count the converted school’s accountability score towards the district-wide score.

The district showed some hostility to expanding choice when renewing the consolidated school last year by trying to cap its ability to attract students. A unique feature allows it to educate students outside of its regular attendance zone, and as a result it is the most racially diverse in the parish. Accordingly, this allows it to enroll students that otherwise would go to the parish’s lower-rated middle and high schools.

To prevent losing control of more students to these charter schools, the board could deny the charter and bank upon a court ruling earlier this year that would make more difficult state funding of Type 2 charter schools. However, the convoluted reasoning used by the appellate court majority in this instance makes it likely that the Louisiana Supreme Court will overturn this poor decision in the near future.

And the families’ rationale for wishing the conversion really does not rely on academic performance. Instead, they point to the district’s reluctance to maintain and provide adequate facilities at the school; the proposed operator can point to new building next door.

The controversy will play out over the next year, but regardless of the result that it has crossed the first hurdle sends a warning to complacent school boards everywhere: put aside the mentality that they, not families, own schools and it’s not special interests but those of children that must come first. That only can help Louisiana advance from the bottom of the barrel when it comes education.

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