The West Baton Rouge Parish school system is looking to lead the charge in the latest battle over the amount of local and state tax dollars the Louisiana Department of Education pumps into charter schools annually.
The school district is doing so with help from the Louisiana School Boards Association, which wants the state’s leaders to remove some of what it regards as carte blanche the charter schools have over student enrollment data thanks to recently tightened student-data privacy laws.
The dispute concerns charter schools approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and involves state revenues some local school districts may lose based on where students attending the charter schools live.
“The lack of transparency is very frustrating,” West Baton Rouge Parish schools Superintendent Wesley Watts said Friday.
State Department of Education spokesman Barry Landry said state and federal law does not permit traditional public schools or charter schools to share the identities of students with outside entities, other than for specific purposes spelled out in those laws.
On the state level, Landry is referring to a 2014 amendment to R.S. 17:3914 that restricts local education agencies from sharing students’ personal information, including names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers.
“These laws exist to protect the personal information of Louisiana’s children,” Landry said in an email.
Landry also said state Education Department officials in December met with local school boards and charter school associations to ensure adequate record keeping is taking place.
He said the state agency committed itself to improving the process of auditing enrollment records.
However, Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said they “fundamentally disagree” with the Education Department’s interpretation of the privacy laws. The association also takes issue with BESE’s lack of policies to verify student residency information when it comes to charter school enrollment, he said.
Watts said members of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents aren’t just peeved that the amount of local tax dollars they receive annually through the state’s Minimum Foundation Program keeps shrinking as the number of charter schools increase. He said superintendents also take issue with the fact that they don’t know to whom or where their local and state funding is going because the Department of Education claims that information is now off-limits.
State MFP allocations are based on enrollment counts and student residency — meaning local districts receive state funding based on the number of students living in their districts and attending their schools.
School districts are informed each summer of their MFP allocations through budget letters from the Education Department.
But when a student opts out of attending a local public school and enrolls at a charter school, local districts lose the MFP funding they would have received from the state for that child, as well as a portion of the local tax revenue that also follows that student to the charter school.
“If the state Department of Education’s policy is that these dollars are going to students going to charter schools, fine. But we should be able to confirm if (the students) live in our school district,” Watts said. “We know (the money is) leaving, but we don’t know where it’s going.”
Most of those funds are going to Type 2 for-profit charter schools. Type 2 charters are approved by the state education board, which is also responsible for their oversight, and can draw students from across the state.
Funding for many charter schools relies heavily on the number of students they can attract because state laws give the Education Department the ability to reroute funding that local districts would otherwise receive to the charter schools instead.
According to MFP funding data the Louisiana School Boards Association obtained from the Education Department, the amount of local funds being diverted away from school districts to charter schools has increased over the last three years from $184.3 million in 2013-14 to $242.3 million in the 2015-16 school year.
West Baton Rouge Parish, which contains no charter schools, has lost about $627,000 in local tax dollars since 2013.
Iberville, East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes, which are home to several charter schools, took much larger hits in the past three years. Iberville had to give up about $7.2 million to charter schools; East Baton Rouge, $70 million; and Orleans Parish, $439.6 million, the Louisiana School Boards Association’s data shows.
“The issue, to me, is not knowing who the money is following,” Watts said. “I’d like to know if there is something we’re not providing to students, and we want to address those issues.”
The West Baton Rouge Parish School Board last week gave Watts the OK to seek legal advice on drafting a resolution that would allow local school districts to track students transferring to other districts or charter schools.
Richard said the goal is to get other school districts to follow as the association works toward raising awareness of the issue and to get state leaders to work on a solution in the upcoming legislative session.
“Traditional school districts are being deducted dollars they really cannot account for,” Richard said. “It becomes a serious problem when a local school district is going through end-of-the-year audits.”
He adds, “We’ve got to be able to track enrollment verification to ensure MFP dollars are actually following kids and the right school systems are being deducted.”
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